On the Etiquette of Airplane Seat Backs
by Alex Van Buren
Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post, author, and co-host of The Awesome Etiquette Podcast, has agreed to weigh in on a few travel etiquette questions from a politesse perspective
First up: To whom belongs the back of your seat on a flight?
There are no clearly demarcated lines around airplane seats, but some of us—when you finally get comfy in 3A only to feel the plonk of knees in the middle of your spine from the person inhabiting 4A—sort of wish there were. To whom belongs the back of your seat? Should the person behind you avoid touching it whenever possible, or is that too much to ask in cramped quarters? And does 4A have the right to make you his in-flight ottoman? Here’s Post’s take:
What should you do if someone’s knees are up on your seat back and it’s annoying you?
“It’s a really difficult situation. Airlines have decreased the amount of space that we have. People are trying to simply be comfortable. On a long flight, you want to move around a little bit. But as for putting your knees up—that seat that they have purchased for that flight is their seat. It’s not your seat. Parents should stop children from kicking. Putting your knee up is something the person in front of you can feel. Even adjusting your seat tray or television, you want to be really gentle. The other person can feel everything that you do.”
What if I’ve fully reclined my seat? Does that mean the person behind me is entitled to put her knees up?
“No, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to be careful about that ‘You took away my space.’
That retaliatory mentality is not necessary—if that’s your reasoning, then that’s definitely not good etiquette. Good etiquette is about thinking about others. Two etiquette negatives don’t make an etiquette positive; all you’re doing is making two uncomfortable people.”
How would you handle asking the person behind you to take their knees down?
“Tone makes all the difference: asking with a chirpy, gentle voice versus saying, ‘EXCUSE ME.’ I think I would be really honest about the situation; in that really positive, polite, gentle voice, I’d turn around and say ‘Hi, I’m terribly sorry, but I can really feel your knees against the back of my seat; would you mind putting them down, please?'”
What if they say “No”?
“They can acquiesce or not, and you can [get up and privately] talk to a flight attendant: ‘The next time you pass through, mind asking this person to put their knees down? … Beyond asking politely on a flight, there’s actually very little you can do. The flight attendant may or may not be able to [help you] switch seats with somebody else. Maybe ask if there’s an open seat available for you to sit in instead.”
Why do people put their knees and feet on other people’s seats at all?
“Truthfully, a lot of people forget that there’s someone on the other side of the seat. They’re maybe a nervous flyer, they’re maybe uncomfortable, too. The more that you think about that this person isn’t doing this intentionally to hurt you, the more your annoyance will lower [and come to] a reasonable level.” @wbbrjp
What if they refuse, the flight attendant can’t do anything, and you’re stuck with being uncomfortable all flight long?
“Losing the etiquette battle is never fun, and it makes for a very negative experience. I travel a lot…sometimes the person next to you becomes your best friend. [But sometimes] the little kid keeps kicking and the mom is asleep and she doesn’t notice. I just say “this isn’t going to be one of the fun ones,” and leave it at that. It helps me [by thinking] ‘the next time I get on a flight, it’s going to be different.'”