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Awkward Silences

Seat Reclining on Airplanes is OK, Research Shows

We wanted to know what people think about seat reclining and plane etiquette, so we guerilla interviewed a bunch of strangers in Austin.

Erin May
/
May 16, 2019

Airplanes are well known petri dishes for germs and disease. They are also cultural crucibles, where people are pitted against one another in a clash of will, ideas, and sense of right and wrong.

Backing up: I’m not short on hot takes. Cilantro is the devil’s food. Freedom is more important than security. We live in a free society that functions best when we share a basic understanding of the social contract.

To me, that contract means you do not recline your seat in coach—or economy plus, extra leg room, basic basic, or whatever other euphemisms the airlines come up with for “not first class”—on an airplane. And I’m not alone. Our very tall CTO, Bob Saris, agrees with me. He would like you to know he’s very tall.

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But look, hot takes are one thing, and user research is another. Of course, they’re better together.

Last month the User Interviews team met IRL for our twice-a-year tour of America, aka offsite, aka onsite, aka not being remote for a week. As we were flying to Austin, I wanted to know what we all want to know: am I alone? Specifically, am I alone in my hate of seat reclining? So I started this #random chat from 30,000 miles up. While the quant score skewed a bit in favor of reclining, or partial reclining is OK, truly it is the qualitative data that is the most interesting.

The making of a study: is my hot take shared by America?

This goes on for some time as you can imagine.

Our Slack conversation revealed a few potential areas of inquiry I hadn’t previously considered:

  1. How do people feel about being reclined upon :) :( :|
  2. Does it matter how long the flight is? Day or night?
  3. What if you’re in a window or aisle?
  4. What about how large/small/tall/short you are? Do men and women see the issue differently?
  5. What about a partial incline? Does that change things?
  6. OK, do YOU recline?

With more questions than answers, and a not-so-random sample size, we decided to dive into these questions, through a, let’s say, informal research study during our UI Tour of America (UITOM hereafter).

Going into our Austin UITOM we knew we wanted to spend a good chunk of our time together focused on our Research @ UI initiative, something I first wrote about here. Specifically we wanted to give everyone the “opportunity” to experience the discomfort of guerilla interviewing. But we needed a research question to answer. We found one in the form of: Is it OK to recline your seat on an airplane?

We thought this had the advantage of being an approachable, not boring topic that might make it easier to approach strangers. We also hoped it would make for some fun content 🤞.

Study design: groups of three, hit the streets

We broke into randomized groups—our VP of Analytics made sure—of three. We asked each group to head out to a public Austin location of their choice and speak with 3-5 people. We created a basic interview guide and ran over some quick interview best practices: don’t ask leading questions, dig into past experiences, make the participant comfortable. We encouraged getting pictures, quotes, audio, video, whatever the interviewees were comfortable with or our researchers had on hand.

Study results: regrettably, people are OK with reclining

We are mostly ok with reclining with some passionate dissent (25%)

The majority think it’s ok to recline, at least partially. Generally I’m all for nuanced opinions, but this is a clear binary for me. Don’t recline at all. Any reclining = encroaching on someone else’s space, leaving them with two poor choices: live with less space, or inflict the wound on someone else.

In an article Mark Wilson penned for Fast Company, he writes:

Between the early 2000s and 2017, seat pitch–or the space between a seat and the seat in front of it–decreased on an average of 4 inches across airlines. As a result, reclining your seat has become an affront on someone else’s personal space.

Exactly right. Thank you Mark Wilson. Delta has a nice solve for this that should please the partial recline set and, well, me, partially.

A common reason why folks think reclining is OK is, effectively, I paid for this ticket, the seat comes with recline, I’m going to recline. Sunk cost aside, this has potentially interesting implications for product designers in general. Careful what you design: people might use it, even if they aren’t particularly sure if it’s good or bad for society—looking at you dark patterns.

Wilson goes on:

What if the person in front of you does it first? Passengers did not design the seats, after all. So why is it up to all of us to negotiate the social dynamics of maximizing comfort without offending fellow passengers? In limiting our ability to recline, Delta is putting the onus on itself–as it should–to manage flyer comfort.

Couldn’t agree more. Brands have a moral obligation to design products that don’t pit citizens against each other. Find out why Bob disagrees with me in this week’s episode of Awkward Silences.

The middle person gets the armrest

The ladies in pink

“Middle person gets the armrest because their seat sucks. This is a rule of society.” ~ Ladies in pink.

People generally agreed some barriers are good (arm rests down), and there were some complicated suggestions about going right or left or toward the window or, my favorite, that the person who owns the armrests is “me,” but a common response was: it sucks to sit in the middle, they get two armrests. A win for humanity! This is a good rule surely we can all get behind.

Look out for jumpers

From the department of “people truly can still surprise you” comes the realization that jumpers are well represented. A jumper is someone who, rather than “holding it” (also common at 3/12) or tapping a sleeping person awake, tries to ninja or jump over the sleeping person(s) to get to the bathroom. One pro jumper assured us he has a really high “success rate.” Keep being you, dude.

Kids are the worst

Kids were not on the list of airplane etiquette and annoyances—perhaps the parent/writer-of-moderator-guide had some unconscious bias—but came up a number of times as absolutely the worst part of flying. What can you do? 🤷‍♀️


Shoes off, socks on

A variety of opinions here, but suffice it to say, if your feet stink (and maybe ask an honest friend if you aren’t sure) keep those tootsies covered.

The final tallies

That’s right, tallie(s)!


Above is the tally taken—passive voice intentional to protect the innocent—the morning after we completed our research. We weren’t exactly sure what “yes” and “no” meant for reclining in the context of “do you do it?” or “are you ok with it,” so I painstakingly, and, I hope, objectively took this tally (below) after listening to all our audio clips and reading through all interview notes.


A whopping 12 say reclining is OK, or even loved it. 2 support a partial recline and 4 of you said no way (that’s a sad 25% if you’re running the math).

Internally we added an additional category based on the qualitative data we got back. 6 say reclining is OK, 7 support a partial recline, 3 support it on long or night flights, and 5 say no to reclining outright (that’s 24% if you’re running the math—basically the same as the entire city of Austin 😉).

Back in Austin, 8 folks said they recline, 1 goes for a partial, and 7 don’t recline. So a number of people are willing to endure a recliner but fewer care to inflict their own recline. But, we did spot 2 bravely honest souls who confessed reclining is not OK, but they do it anyway. Ah people.

Epilogue: get your team involved in research

If we were to do a study like this again, I’d create a very simple tally template for the main question: is reclining OK. It took a lot of digging through qualitative data (a mix of audio, written, and video files thanks to our instructions 🤦‍♀️) and we could have gotten a much quicker pulse read by surfacing that data in a more structured way.

On the qualitative side, this was pure gold. Give people freedom with guardrails:

  • Do talk to three people
  • Do generally ask these questions
  • Do go wherever you want
  • Do use whatever media you/participants feel comfortable with

Focusing the rules on what’s most important, while maximizing freedom to get there, is a recipe for success when you’re working with intelligent people.

Have a topic you’d like us to research? Shoot it to us at marketing@userinterviews.com. Need to get out of your head and into your target audience’s? Recruit your first three participants free here.

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Erin May

Marketing, content, UX, CRM, and brand enthusiast. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held. Lead marketing at User Interviews.

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