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Airplane announcements always say that that "the seatback has to be in an upright position" for takeoff. However, what's the earliest you can recline your seat after takeoff? The moment the wheels leave the ground, when the wheels retract, or when the seatbelt sign goes off?

For extra credit, does it make a difference if the seat moves back or simply slides down? (I assume that for those business class seats where you need to stand up to flip them down, you have to wait for the seatbelt sign.)

And for avoidance of doubt, assume there's nobody behind you because we've already spilled plenty of pixels on that topic.

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    @AzorAhai And the wheels retracting usually makes an audible "whirr-THUNK" sound. – lambshaanxy Jun 29 at 9:39
  • Please stop posting comments, we have cleaned up several times already. – Willeke Jul 1 at 10:09
36

If you looking for some sort of (semi)official marker, then you should use the cabin chimes.

While these vary by airline there is very often a 10,000 ft chime which indicates the 'take-off' phase is over and cabin crew can begin service. There would be a similar final decent chime as well. This is when the announcements are made or video plays.

The seat-belt sign is not a good indicator because that is usually at Captain's discretion and often stays on well into flight if there's even a hint of bumpy air, even though it's considered safe for crew to be up and about.

For the more complicated hard products, the crew will make the bed when they're ready and tell you to get up when they're ready. :)

  • You are right; definitely don't wait for the seat belt sign to go out. Just came back from Hawaii, trip there seat belt sign went off pretty quick, but on the way back, it was on the whole time. I always listen for the chime. – Mark Stewart Jun 28 at 18:36
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    Interesting. Never focused too much on the chimes because I'm usually fast asleep during taxi. How do you know which chime is which? Is there just one chime? Are there multiple ones? – JoErNanO Jun 29 at 0:32
  • The chimes vary (sometimes they indicate crew members calling each other on the interphone or someone has pressed their call button), but a common pattern is a double chime crossing 10,000ft a few minutes after takeoff. – Zach Lipton Jun 29 at 2:39
  • @JoErNanO Each airline has their own pattern. It's not a secret, obviously :). If you're really curious, you can ask a flight attendant between services. – Johns-305 Jun 29 at 13:21
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A senior cabin crewmember here...

The "critical" times for flights is 3 minutes after take-off and 8 minutes before landing. This is the time in which the chance of having an emergency is relatively high, this includes some dangerous maneuvers as a result of rejected take-offs, wind shears, bird strikes, etc.

So, technically speaking if you count 3 minutes after the take-off roll then you are most likely safe enough to recline your seat. However, this is technically speaking and it's not what you should follow.

Legally/policy speaking, you can recline your seat whenever the seat-belt sign is turned off after take off, and placed back upright when the seatbelt sign is turned on for landing, or whenever instructed by the crew. Unlike what others have said, this is the correct indication to follow.

Some airlines allow their cabin crew to move around once the landing-gears are retracted, although moving around the cabin is a bit hard due to the angle of attack, but usually this means the airplane is in a somehow safe situation due to being away from the ground (at least 1,000 feet) and gained some air-speed. Again, this is not for the passengers.

Finally, the pilots have an access to a weather radar and sometimes they see a bad weather ahead so they delay the seatbelt sign because it would make no sense to turn it off for a couple of minutes before turning it again. So none of the "technical guidelines" would do you good, the only thing that will indicate that it is really safe is the seatbelt sign.

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    I know the last paragraph is how a lot of pilots behave, but it would be much better to allow even a few minutes with the seat belt sign off, to let passengers retrieve items that had to be stowed for takeoff but that they want during the flight. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 29 at 21:56
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    @PatriciaShanahan I disagree, many passengers would go to toilets then the seatbelt sign goes on before they finish.. why risk it. – Nean Der Thal Jun 29 at 22:03
  • Just FYI, North American airlines do not enforce upright seats with the seat-belt sign. And I don't recall any European airlines doing so either. The seat position announcements are inline with flight phase. – Johns-305 Jun 30 at 13:51
  • @Johns-305 I was flying Air France recently and they did. – Nean Der Thal Jun 30 at 19:40
11

In Economy, I have always interpreted the "fasten seat belt" sign switch-off as the time it is safe to recline the seat. Sometimes, due to turbulence or other reasons, the sign stays on for long after take-off. In that case I tend to wait for the plane to finish its climb and stabilise before I recline the seat.

In Business with seats that turn into beds (such as those on international flights), I also wait for the "fasten seat belt" sign switch-off to move the seat to make myself more comfortable. I do not fully lie down until the plane is done climbing.

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    This seems reasonable. The seat will need to be upright again for landing and the seat belt sign being switched off means, among other things, "We're not going to be landing any time soon." – David Richerby Jun 28 at 9:42
  • Wife & I just returned from a flight from Hawaii to Texas and the "Fasten Seat Belts" light was on tor the whole flight. See Johns-305 answer for the chimes method. – Mark Stewart Jun 28 at 18:39
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Interestingly, the FAA regulations actually mandate that the pilot must not takeoff until all seats are upright, while the passengers are only commanded to obey flight attendant instructions in the matter.FAR 121.311

no certificate holder may take off or land an airplane unless each passenger seat back is in the upright position. Each passenger shall comply with instructions given by a crewmember in compliance with this paragraph.

Takeoff is defined in 25.111 as

The takeoff path extends from a standing start to a point in the takeoff at which the airplane is 1,500 feet above the takeoff surface, or at which the transition from the takeoff to the en route configuration is completed and VFTO is reached, whichever point is higher.

So technically, after climbing 1500 feet (in most cases) you are out of "takeoff" and should be able to recline your seat. But guessing your distance climbed is difficult, so the chimes at 10,000 are probably your best guide, as mentioned by @Johns-305. Frequently these days I have also heard an announcement that larger electronics such as laptops can now be used, as those are restricted below 10,000 feet

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    "Each passenger shall comply with instructions given by a crewmember...". Pilots are crew members, too. There is no specific reference or restriction, in the instruction given, to cabin crew. – Vince O'Sullivan Jun 29 at 9:32
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In addition to existing answers, a couple of times I flew Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic, the pre-flight announcement stated that their Upper Class seats (which do convert into full flat bed) are certified for take-off and landing at any recline position and therefore there is no need to bring them to the upright position for take off and landing.

So, in this case, you can recline even before the flight starts.

  • While interesting, this seems very much the exception rather than the rule? I'm not aware of any other airline where this is the case. – lambshaanxy Jun 28 at 15:22
  • @jpatokal I certainly haven't encountered this on any other airline myself - even in business class (even in Emirates, which is considered very good) – Aleks G Jun 28 at 15:25
  • @jpatokal But, that would make for an interesting question for Aviation - I asked one here – Aleks G Jun 28 at 15:29
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    This is weird. When fully flat, given the seat layout, you would expect many people to have difficulty in standing up from the seat in an emergency (or at least taking a bit longer). This is probably compensated by the limited density, but that still makes the evacuation target (90 seconds IIRC?) quite harder to reach. – jcaron Jun 28 at 16:51
  • @jpatokal Air New Zealand is (or at least used to be) another airline that allowed that in business class. – reirab Jun 28 at 18:26
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The indication I've always used is the announcement that passengers may feel free to move around the cabin and/or the crew begin to move around the cabin. I've seen the seat belt sign illuminated for the entire duration of some flights, so it's not a useful indicator. Just because the air is rough it doesn't mean you can't/shouldn't recline your seat (unless the flight crew issues a specific instruction), but it's a wise precaution to keep your seat belt on whenever you are seated, hence the always-illuminated seat belt sign.

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adding to more interesting answer , in india you you can recline anytime you want , it was yesterday when I travelled to spicejet flight and announcement was going on but i already had the seat recline and only heard the end part and flight was 4-5 sec from take off and even the crew saw me lying like that and she said nothing. guess its india maybe :P

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    Just because you did doesn't mean you're supposed to or allowed to. – lambshaanxy Jul 1 at 13:11

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