The Controversy Over Reclining Seats—And How You Can Beat the System

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Reclining Seat Controversy

By Peter Greenberg

Air rage seems to be front page news again, as news reports of in-the-air fights over airline seats (and reclining those seats) are popping up everywhere. One of the biggest sources for this growing frustration is the ever-shrinking seat itself. No, that’s not an optical illusion–your seat is actually getting smaller. In fact, the average seat has shrunk from 18.5 inches to 16.5 inches over the past 20 years —while the average American behind has expanded generously. We average about 30 pounds heavier than we did in 1970. But the real culprit in many of these confrontations is the seat pitch, or the distance from seat back to seat back. As we all know, this number varies widely and reclining seats are often the straw that breaks the camel’s back in many mid-air fights. Just a few years ago, the industry standard was 32 inches for seat pitch, but it is now closer to a wee 28 inches. It’s no wonder that passengers are beginning to take issue with each other over ‘reclining etiquette’—as if this is a subject of deep philosophical debate. The bottom line is that the system is rigged for confrontation, but travelers can take back the reins with a little leg work, every pun intended.

The first step? Forget about that seating chart when booking flights online. The chart will always show a bunch of dreaded middle seats because the airline wants you to upgrade. They withhold about 30 percent of the available seats and you’ll only find out about them by calling the airline and speaking with a human being. Yes, have an actual conversation. Secondly, make sure to always check a source like to see the true layout of the plane you will be flying on. For example, most folks don’t know that the best regularly-priced seats on a Boeing 757 are 10A and 10F. The reason? Seats 9A and 9F don’t exist. That’s all the free leg room you’ll ever need. On a 747, 52B and 52J have no adjacent seat, as the tail of the plane tapers in towards the rear. Not quite leg room, but essentially a free upgrade. You now have extra space.