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Is it ever acceptable to recline on a plane? Two frequent flyers go head to head

Airplane seat reclining debate
Reclining – or not – is one of air travel’s great debates - Getty/E+

How laid back are you when you fly? No, not your outlook: your posture. Do you hit the recline button the moment the seatbelt signs blink off, savouring every increment of your new obtuse angle – or are you more mindful of those behind you, remaining stoic even if the seat in front lowers into your lap?

Reclining – or not – is one of air travel’s great debates, rumbling on like the giant Rolls-Royce engines of an Airbus A380. And according to a new report by Kayak on the etiquette of air travel, we remain a nation divided: nine in 10 Britons (92 per cent) say it’s fine to recline, but 47 per cent say you should ask permission from the person behind you first.

In the study, 16 per cent of respondents said it’s always OK to hit that armrest button – while an eerily similar 19 per cent mused that it’s only acceptable on a long-haul flight. This isn’t just a question of comfort, it’s a moral quandary too: in the report, one in 10 people said they waited for the person in front to take the lead. If they recline, then tacit permission is granted.

What a farce. In a bid to settle this once and for all, we asked two frequent fliers – firmly on either side of the debate – to put forward their case. Who do you agree with? Tell us in the comments below. Fasten your seatbelts: this could get bumpy.

Annabel Fenwick Elliott and Jack Rear
Annabel Fenwick Elliott and Jack Rear argue for and against seat reclining - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

“What sort of masochist doesn’t use a lever that’s there specifically to lessen their discomfort?”

Says Annabel Fenwick Elliott

There is something very weird about this debate. Which is that unlike most “divisive” topics, which have pros and cons on either side, I cannot for one moment fathom why this one is even an argument.

Seats on planes (and indeed in cars and various other modes of transport) are designed to recline because it is much, much more comfortable for human beings to sit for long periods of time leaning back than bolt upright. This fact is indisputable. The button has a reason and is there for you to use it. What sort of absolute masochist, first of all, does not make use of a lever that is there specifically to lessen their discomfort?

But more baffling still, why should that person, not satisfied with spending hours in such a pose themselves – defiant, like a martyr burning at the stake – expect all his fellow passengers to choose the same fate?

The only scenario in which I can vaguely imagine being annoyed by someone in front of me reclining their seat would be if mine did not also recline. Even then, it would only be, presumably, because my button was broken, which would not be the fault of the person in front, nor even something they’d know about.

Further, in the unlikely event that such a misfortune did befall me on a long-haul flight, I would not, in a million years, stand up, tap this person’s shoulder and demand they not use their button either; thereby doubling the human suffering. Happily, we rarely need to delve into this level of philosophy, given that reclinable seats all recline, so that as soon as the seatbelt signs go off, the domino effect can take place and everyone can claim their few inches of improvement. Why – if this is you – do you not want to lean?

The only motive I can see for banning adjustable seats is the very one which has driven certain budget airlines to do just that: stinginess. Ryanair, for one, stripped out the function (along with other frills, like seatback pockets) in 2004 because it made the chairs lighter and thus the fuel costs lower. And it doesn’t make for a very comfortable flight, does it?

I’ve written about this “debate” extensively in the past and am still no closer to understanding the other side. So if anyone has a logically sound argument as to why I should, on my next lengthy flight, refrain from pushing that button, I’d like to hear it. Write in, leave a comment. I await with bated breath.

Airplane seat reclining debate
'The benefit you will get from reclining your seat is, frankly, miniscule,' argues Jack - Getty/E+

“People who recline their seats on aeroplanes are psychopaths and should be banned from flying”

Says Jack Rear

As golden rules go, the one about treating others as you would like to be treated is one of the easier ones to live by. If you’re going on a date, don’t have a cheese and onion sandwich for lunch. If you work in a small office, don’t reheat a fish pie in the communal microwave. If you’re off on holiday, don’t recline your seat on the plane.

You may think: “I paid for this seat, why shouldn’t I do whatever I like?” What’s it to you if the person behind you has less leg room?

Planes are uncomfortable. For most, flying is the worst part of going on holiday; the misery of being stuffed into a metal can at 36,000ft is the price we begrudgingly pay for the joy of travel. Is three inches of reclined comfort so much to ask?

I believe it is. We live in a society and that means sometimes you have to cope with minor discomfort for the good of the people around you. And let’s not pretend that keeping your seat upright is anything more than a minor discomfort. You do it for seven hours a day at work, you can manage it on a short-haul flight.

Chances are the very moment you land and get out of the airport, you’ll be checking into a comfortable hotel room where you can laze and lounge to your heart’s desire. You won’t have to inflict yourself on anyone else while you do it.

Allow me to remind you of a basic fact of life which some entitled air passengers seem to have forgotten: you are no more important than the people around you. You do not have a God-given right to comfort at their expense.

The benefit you will get from reclining your seat is, frankly, miniscule. It isn’t going to make the seat less hard, it isn’t going to improve the taste of your in-flight meal, it isn’t going to make the feet of the guy beside you who has inexplicably taken off his shoes stink any less.

What it will accomplish is to give even less room to the person behind you, make it harder to watch their film or eat their meal, and set their holiday off to a bad start.

Some small discomfort is the price of having cheap airfares and being able to travel. If you don’t like it, pay for the upgrade to first class or better yet, hire a private jet where you can do literally anything you want. If these are impossible and you truly can’t handle a few hours of sitting up straight, perhaps you’re simply not suited to travel. Might I recommend staying at home in your armchair and moaning about your misanthropy on social media instead?

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