By Matt Villano, on September 3, 2014

Travel etiquette: airplane seat protocol

Can’t we all just get along up there?

That’s the prevailing question in the travel industry this week, as we saw three separate commercial flights diverted mid-journey because passengers fought over “Recline Rage,” or seat-reclining etiquette.

In at least one of the cases, a passenger utilized a special device, dubbed the Knee Defender, to immobilize the seat in front of him and prevent the person in it from reclining her seat. In response, the female passenger turned around and threw water in the man’s face.

Here at the Expedia Viewfinder, we can’t help but think back to some research Expedia did on this very issue last year. As part of our 2013 Airplane Etiquette Study, we (well, really it was the research firm, Northstar, on our behalf) asked more than 1000 Americans to rank and respond to a range of in-flight behaviors, from seat-reclining and seat-swapping to drinking, eating, and canoodling.

The study found that “Seat Back Guy,” defined as the passenger who reclines his seat fully once the plane has left the ground, ranked No. 7 on the list of travel-etiquette offenders.

Data also indicated that roughly 35 percent of study participants reported having experienced “major discomfort” due to a reclining seat, and another 42 percent said they would like to see reclining seats banned entirely (or at least restricted on short-haul flights).

Interestingly, while nearly half of our participants self-identified as anti-reclining, about 80 percent of the group admitted to reclining their seats during flights. About 41 percent admitted to reclining when they sleep, while 38 percent said they reclined when their flight is three hours or longer. Just under one in five (about 18 percent) reported that they recline immediately after take-off, while 15 percent said do so once meal service is complete. Another 15 percent copped to reclining whenever the passenger in front of them reclines.

Our study revealed more data about reclining etiquette, too:

  • 17 percent of participants admitted they would recline their seats even if the passenger behind them was noticeably pregnant
  • 23 percent said they would recline if the passenger was elderly or frail
  • 36 percent reported that they would recline their seats even if the passenger behind them was particularly tall (look out, Kevin Durant!)
  • 45 percent of study participants said they usually give no warning when reclining, while 33 percent said they ask their neighbors’ permission and 22 percent reported warning their neighbors (but not asking permission).

Taken as a whole, the study also revealed some fascinating data about other travel etiquette violators at 35,000 feet.

Viewfinder Tip: Treat others the way you expect to be treated, and marvel at the results.

Our research found that “inattentive parents” (41 percent) and “Rear Seat Kickers” (38 percent) ranked first and second on the list of “Most Annoying/Offensive Airplane Etiquette Violators.” Rounding out the top five were the “Aromatic Passenger” (28 percent), “The Boozer” (26 percent) and “Chatty Cathy” (23 percent). Again, “Seat Back Guy” came in at No. 7.

We even held a Google+ Live Hangout on Air in which yours truly moderated a lively discussion about travel etiquette with the ebullient Rachel Rudwall and Lonely Planet’s Robert Reid. (Our discussion about “Bin Bashers,” those passengers who push others out of the way to get their carry-on luggage from the overhead bins, was particularly hilarious and riveting.)

The bottom line: We all could stand to be a bit nicer when we fly. Stay tuned for continuing coverage on the etiquette situation in our “friendly” skies. And, please, for the love of all that is good in the world, resist the temptation to buy and/or use the Knee Defender!

How do you respond to fellow passengers who abuse the right to recline?