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The debate over how, when and even if to recline an airplane seat was raging on social media after a video went viral brought attention to passengers’ etiquette while flying.

In the video, a woman passenger sitting in an aisle seat has reclined her chair during a flight on American Airlines, much to the chagrin of the male passenger sitting behind her in the plane’s last seat that does not recline. After the woman refused the man’s request to return her seatback to the upright position, he decided revenge was his best response: by repeatedly — and rhythmically, yet disruptively — pushing the back of her chair to the highest of levels of annoyance.

To recline or not to recline?

The 32-second video reminded this writer of the time he was flying to Europe back in 2002. I had reclined to get some rest about an hour into the flight that had taken off close to 10 p.m. We would be arriving at our final destination in about eight hours and it was bedtime for most of us on board. That is, except for the woman behind me, who politely asked me not to recline — even though I was sleeping and the cabin’s lights had dimmed because others were sleeping. Roused from my sleep, and angry because of it, I politely refused, prompting the privileged woman to summon a flight attendant to mediate what I thought should not have been much of an argument at all. Alas, it quickly escalated into a thing with the flight attendant immediately scolding me and threatening to get the air marshal with the implication that I could force the international flight to be diverted. “Bruce, just chill,” my friend who I was traveling with wisely advised me. And so I relented and unreclined my seat to accommodate the woman behind me, who was able to recline her own seat if she had chosen.

In other words, this new viral video hits me differently.

Imagine my surprise when it was announced that the CEO of Delta Airlines said that flying etiquette dictates that it’s up to the passenger behind you to determine whether it’s OK for you to recline.

“I think the proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody that you ask if it’s OK first, and then you do it,” Ed Bastian said Friday during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

The renewed controversy to a debate that is decidedly not new brings attention to a topic to which I’ve searched in vain for consistent answers ever since that fateful flight, and one that’s left me hesitant to recline at all, especially seeing as most commercial airlines have stuffed even more seats inside their planes to make more money off passengers who are packed in like sardines. My argument has been all along that those seats recline for a reason and would not be able to recline if airlines didn’t want them to. Since the seats do recline, and there are no signs posted advising passengers against reclining them, the natural logic should be that paying passengers should be allowed to recline or not at their own discretion as the flight’s captain allows.

Sop the questions remain: to recline or not to recline? Should airlines be required to explicitly state their expectations surrounding reclining passengers? Is there any solution to this controversy that won’t go away anytime soon? Let us know what you think.


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