The button that lets you lean back in your airplane seat has caused so much trouble that it has led to a small industry of gadgets that stop the person in front of you from leaning into your space.
At one time, all economy-class seats on planes had built-in ways to lie down. There are entire seat models that don’t have the option anymore.
So, what happened to make some seats no longer able to be leaned back? And is that something good or bad? Should a passenger put their seat back just because they can?
As with so many things in the airline business, it depends on who you ask.
Let’s talk about how recline does what it does. At its most basic, the structure under your seat cushion hides a mechanism with a pivot, the wires that connect it to the button on your armrest, and a pneumatic canister that pushes the seat back up. This is called “kinematics,” which means “the parts that move.”
This is a cost for airlines, first because of maintenance. Any mechanism can break, either because of normal wear and tear or because passengers don’t treat planes with care.
Second, there is a weight cost, since all of these mechanisms can add up quickly. Most modern and light airplane seats weigh between 15 and 22 pounds per passenger and somewhere between 7 and 10 kilograms. Every pound that can be saved means less fuel is needed to move it.
Third, and in some ways most importantly, there is a cost of disruption. If people are fighting over how to recline their seats, flight attendants have to play the role of a schoolyard monitor. In some cases, passengers were so loud that flights had to be changed to keep everyone safe.
Measuring each inch
So what if the seats didn’t tilt back?
In the late 2000s, a new generation of highly engineered, super-lightweight seats started to hit the market. Part of what made them so light was that they couldn’t be leaned back. Someone with a good head for the business came up with the idea to call them “pre-reclined” and fix the backrest at an angle between fully upright and slightly reclined.
At first, they were aimed mostly at low-cost airlines. Most of the time, these airlines only have flights that last a few hours, and they are known for not having any extras.
European vacation package company Jet2, based in the UK, was one of the first to use them. In 2009, they chose a pre-reclined seat from a new company called Acro, which changed the way airlines think about seats.
Before it was called Series 3, Acro’s seat was called Clark. Now it is called Series 3.
One of them was that the seat couldn’t be leaned back, and another was that the seat pan and backrest were cleverly shaped into a fixed “bucket” shape.
From the back, this shape made it possible for taller passengers to put their knees on either side of the “bucket,” giving them an extra couple of inches of space.
Those few inches make a big difference. On an all-economy single-aisle plane like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, there are about 30 rows of economy seats. The last generation of seats had about 30 inches (about 76 centimeters) of pitch, which is the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it. This is your space minus the thickness of the seat.
If an airline can save an inch of space per row, that’s 30 inches across the plane, which is enough to add a whole row of seats.
Over the last 15 years or so, a lot of seat makers have come up with new ways to save those inches, like making seats that already lean back.
One of the best is made by the German company Recaro, which is best known for its racing car seats outside of aviation. Recaro Aircraft Seating has full-featured economy class seats with recline and a tilting seat pan for long-haul flights. They also have slimline seats that are already reclined for shorter flights.
When the pre-recline became popular
“As part of the seat configuration process, the airline can choose a pre-defined backrest angle position of 15 or 18 degrees,” says Mark Hiller, the CEO of Recaro. “This helps to make the seats more comfortable by increasing the angle of the backrest, or it helps to fit special layouts with a certain number of seats.”
“The main benefit is more living space since reclining doesn’t get in the way of a passenger’s living space.” Also, the total cost of ownership is low because the seat has fewer moving parts, is more reliable, and is easier to maintain. The seat is also cheap and light, and it doesn’t need a mechanism, kinematics, or anything like that.
Hiller talks about special layouts that are often what the industry calls “max pax,” which stands for the most people an airplane is certified to carry. At the moment, there are 244 people on a narrow-body Airbus A321neo with only economy seats. Some airlines with roomy business class seats up front have fewer than 150 people on the same plane.
It should be clear that an airplane with 244 seats, or even 230 seats or more, is not going to be the roomiest.
But in the last few years, people who make seats have found ways to make it feel like there’s more space at your knees. They do this by making the seatback thinner, moving the structure so it doesn’t get in the way of your knees, and giving your shins more room.
In the past few years, slimline seats, which were mostly used by low-cost airlines, have started showing up on full-service airlines as well. This is partly because full-service airlines now compete directly with low-cost airlines.
One way they’re doing this is by selling economy-plus seats with extra legroom at the front of the economy cabin. These seats might have more features, like AC power sockets and the ability to recline, while regular economy seats might already be reclined and have no power or only USB outlets. These are called hybrid cabins, so keep an eye out for them the next time you get on a plane. The color of the seat fabric might change from row to row, the headrest might go away, or the seat covering might change from fabric to leather.
So, are seats that already lay back a net plus or a net minus?
As a journalist, I’ve been writing about this industry for over 15 years, and I’ve been flying for over 40 years. All things considered, I’ve decided that they’re a net positive where they’re used, which is mostly on short flights of a couple of hours or less. This is mostly because they prevent fights between the person in front and the person in the back.
Long-haul flights, on the other hand, are different. These seats will always be able to recline, but the pre-reclined seats will give you more room for your legs.
Just be a good airplane passenger and look behind you before you lean back, lean back slowly and smoothly, and put your seat back up when everyone else is eating, preferably without the crew telling you to.