The economics of reclining airline seats

One of the strangest developments in modern air travel are the fights that are breaking out over the issue of reclining seats, between those who try to recline and the people behind who feel that it encroaches on their already limited space. This has sometimes escalated to the point where people have poured water on another person or planes have had to make unscheduled stops and passengers have been ejected.

Strictly speaking, the recliners are in the right. The plane’s seats allow for them to recline and when we buy a ticket we know full well that the seat of the person in front could recline. But people now feel so cramped that the old understanding of what is allowable has changed.

As for me, I never recline my seat unless I am on one of those very long international flights where I am trying to sleep. In those situations, usually everyone is trying to sleep and is reclining, and so there is no conflict, at least not yet. Problems usually arise when the person in front wants to recline and the person behind wants to use the table to work on or eat or something.

Christopher Buccafusco and Chris Sprigman think that this might be a good way to use theories of economics. The four inches of space that is gained/lost by reclining could be considered a scarce resource whose price can be negotiated between the two parties, the recliner and the reclinee. The thorny question is who ‘owns’ that space to begin with and there is no agreement among economists.

So they conducted an experiment to see who valued the space more. It turned out that the answer depended on which person was initially assigned the right.

Whichever party is initially assigned the right will be the one who tends to value it more. Which means that we still don’t have any meaningful guidance about whether a “right to recline” or a “right not to be reclined upon” is the better rule.

Maybe the problem is that the person who buys the ticket pays the airline also for the benefit of being able to recline, while the person behind pays the cost of being reclined upon. Maybe if the person in the seat had to pay a small fixed fee to the person behind for the privilege of reclining, the problem might go away. The person in front may feel less inclined to explicitly pay to recline but if they do, the person behind may be mollified.

The problem of course is that most people, myself included, find the idea of monetizing small interactions among strangers, which should be common courtesies, highly distasteful. Perhaps in the new high tech world, the direct exchange of money could be replaced by an invisible, indirect one. The person in front would have to use their credit card to recline their seat and this would ding them an extra charge that would be credited to the credit card of whoever was behind.

I think that this problem might go away if people are treated considerately. They would, I suspect, freely give their consent if the person in front asked them if they could to recline their seat and similarly would honor the wishes of the person behind if their request were declined.

While this issue makes for an interesting exercise in applied economics, the actual fuss over reclining seats seems like another example of a First World Whine, a minor inconvenience that affects just those living in affluent societies where flying is seen as routine and minor inconveniences become major irritants.


  1. says

    If we’re talking about “the economics of reclining seats”, we should mention that this is a problem created by the airlines. This wasn’t a problem until they started cramming as many seats as possible onto each plane in order to wring as much revenue as possible out of each flight. It bugs me how this issue turns passenger against passenger, while the real culprit reaps all the benefits.

  2. Chiroptera says

    As the previous commenter noted, one solution would be for airlines to quit cramming so many seats onto a plane. (And, yes, when I read the OP the word “cram” was the word that came to my mind as well.) Sounds like another good idea for a federal law to protect the airlines from their own stupidity.

    That said, I have to admit that, even though I’m a tad over 6 ft tall, I have never felt all that inconvenienced by the sear in front of me reclining back. Or maybe it’s because I’m a tad over 6 ft tall: airline seats are already so uncomfortable that those few inches don’t really make any real difference for me. (Hmm. Another reason I like the idea of a law!)

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    What drewvogel said. Flying has become much more unpleasant in the last decade or so. Aside from the TSA security theater, airlines have discontinued complimentary meals, useful frequent flyer programs, etc. The word “steerage” may be due for a comeback.

  4. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Couple of items:
    FAA regulations dictate what the minimum seat pitch is. The applicable regulation is 14 CFR Part 121.310

    This was most recently amended in 2004. However, the current minimum of 30 inches has not changed since the mid 90s (’97). In some situations, the airlines are granted exemptions to reduce the effective seat pitch by 1 inch, making the effective seat pitch 29 inches. Again, this hasn’t changed since the mid 90s.

    I think most of the current issue with it has more to do with people becoming more entitled assholes than anything else. 🙂

    Although, as noted above, there are a lot of other factors that make flying less pleasant. The interior arrangements have not changed.

  5. Christopher Schulte says

    OK – I’m six foot, five inches, and even if I ask for/pay for the expensive “comfort’ seats or exit seats, I might not get them. My knees are already are already touching or even pushing into the the seat in front of me. Physically, it is very difficult for the person in front of me to put their seat back without with a bit of contortion on my part and invasion of the spaces next to me. I’ve had people slam their seat on me several times trying to get whatever annoying blockage they’re facing to budge. I didn’t choose to be tall. I just have this genetic anomaly that made me so. It’m not even _that_ tall here in the upper midwest. I wouldn’t have any issue with seats going back if we could define above average height as a disability when it comes to flying so that we are given automatic priority for the emergency exit- at the normal price. Right now I do have a problem with seats going back. – Sorry

  6. Donnie says

    As a 197cm person, I am glad airlines charge for emergency row exiting seating. I willing pay to sit there or upgrade to a premium row. The extra 4 inches gained are important. When the asshole in front reclines (usually withouth notice) on my knees, I give a good, moderate nudge in the back of their spine. Usually, they do not recline. Else, I will start constantly moving my knees against their spines. Flying was barely acceptable when I had status. Now, I detest it unless I can secure emergency row exit. do not get me started on 5 foot nothing individuals sitting in emergency row exit seating 🙁

    One of the reasons I stopped travelling consulting was due to the nightmares of flying. I had other reasons as well, but flying was one of the agrevations.

  7. Anne C. Hanna says

    Strictly speaking, the recliners are in the right. The plane’s seats allow for them to recline and when we buy a ticket we know full well that the seat of the person in front could recline. But people now feel so cramped that the old understanding of what is allowable has changed.

    Sorry, Mano, but I’ve gotta delurk to say that I don’t buy this. One could just as easily rephrase this in terms of the right to use the tray table/knee space that one has paid for:

    Strictly speaking, the anti-recliners are in the right. The plane’s seats allow for them to put their knees in that space and use their tray tables and when we buy a ticket we know full well that the person behind could have long legs or choose to use the tray table. But people now feel so cramped that the old understanding of what is allowable has changed.

    The problem is, as drewvogel says @1, that the airlines have set up passengers for conflict by selling the same space to two different people. It’s not helpful to declare that one of those people or the other is “strictly speaking” in the right. They’re both right. They both have a right to use the space that they’ve paid for. It’s the airlines that are in the wrong, when they double-book that space.

  8. Anne C. Hanna says

    Actually, I should make an addendum to this. I think the situation is actually slightly worse than being symmetric between the two sides, because reclining your seat without at least giving the person behind you fair warning can do them harm, and there’s no mirror-image behavior possible on the anti-reclining side. I can’t sleep leaning back in an airline seat, so I sometimes lean my head forward on the tray table, and on more than one occasion, I’ve been nearly crushed by somebody who suddenly leaned their seat back without checking. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of long-legged people getting their knees crushed by sudden-recliners as well, and there’s the additional possibility of property harms like getting your drink knocked over or your book or laptop bashed. And I don’t think it would really be fair to place the responsibility on the rear passenger for these incidents just because they weren’t constantly on alert for the possibility that the seat in front of them might suddenly recline, and rigidly holding themselves out of that space at all times.

    This is why I think Knee Defender type devices are kinda legit — they prevent “surprise” reclining. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be any reasonable negotiation with the person in front of you if they want to recline, it just gives you a way to ensure that they at least have to check with you first.

    But, that said, the airlines just shouldn’t double-book the damn space in the first place. Passengers’ poor skills at negotiating the cramped conditions are a relatively small matter compared to the failings of the airlines in creating those conditions in the first place.

  9. Paulo Borges says

    I’m a frequent flyer due to my work and I have never encountered any problems like these on any of my flights, most of the times people talk and solve their problems without the plane having to land. Taking in account the number of flights that are on the air in any given day and the amount that are forced to land due to these situation, it follows that most people are able to solve whatever problems in a civilized manner.
    In my opinion these problems can be avoided by giving different configurations to the planes according to the length of the flight. Inside Europe I normally use low cost companies (Ryanair or Easyjet) with crammed planes, of course these are normally 2 to 3 hour flights an I would not mind loosing the reclining seat, I don’t even mind that they charge for a dink of water. On medium to long flights I use the flag carriers (BA, TAP, Lufthansa), yes it’s more expensive but when it comes to being inside a plane for 4 hours or more I don’t mind paying for the extras and I definitely will exercise my right to a reclining seat. So if the flight is short the seats are closer and non reclining also cheaper flight, if the flight is longer one gets more leg room and a reclining seat that comes at a financial cost.
    I don’t know how things work in the US but I assume that it’s the same, the more expensive the carrier the more leg room one has.

  10. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    I have no idea what you people are on about. I’m 6′ 3″ and I’m no more or less comfortable regardless of the position of the seat in front of me, nor have I ever had any problem using the tray table on a reclined seat. Are you all flying some mysterious airline with barcalounger seats or something? Cuz the ones I’ve seen barely move an inch.

  11. Anne C. Hanna says

    dysomniak @10, I’m glad you’ve never had problems, but for some people that inch or two matters. Do you think they’re lying or hypersensitive? I personally have no problem not reclining my seat — I don’t feel like I get any meaningful improvement in comfort from an extra inch or so in that direction — but I believe the people who say it makes a big difference for them. Is it too much to ask for you to do the converse?

  12. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    Do you think they’re lying or hypersensitive?

    Human beings acting hypersensitive and entitled about shit that doesn’t matter? Your right, that’s pretty far fetched.

  13. Anne C. Hanna says

    dysomniak, three people in this very thread, myself included, have noted that we’ve had negative, and, indeed, painful experiences with people reclining seats on us without notice. Are you claiming that the three of us are lying or hypersensitive, and if so, which?

  14. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    I’m saying I can’t imagine how it could possibly be such an impingement, based on the simple mechanics of the situation. As for why it seems to bother you so much, I don’t know, i’m not a mind reader.

  15. Anne C. Hanna says

    As for why it seems to bother you so much, I don’t know, i’m not a mind reader.

    For someone who’s not a mind reader, you seem to be pretty damn confident about dismissing others’ reports of the problem just because you personally have never experienced it. Maybe your default assumption shouldn’t be that problems you personally don’t have don’t exist? Other people aren’t all exactly the same shape as you, you know. But perhaps you can’t imagine that either?

  16. says

    Height isn’t the only issue. Leg length is too. My father has short, stubby legs and has no problem sitting in narrow spaces. His brother, who is only a couple inches taller, has very long legs and is quite cramped in the same space.

  17. aashiq says

    When I fly coach, I expect the person in front to recline without notice, and I expect to be able to recline without notice.

    If the person in front of me does not recline, that’s great! If the person behind me complains, I generally comply but am not particularly sympathetic.

    Tall and fat people need to buy business class….and to stop complaining!

  18. Anne C. Hanna says

    aashiq, glad to hear you don’t have any difficulties with the status quo. That must be very pleasant for you. I know it will shock you to hear this, but many others are not in the same situation as you! If you want to not be an asshole, it would behoove you to recognize that it’s not reasonable to be dismissive of a problem just because you don’t personally have it.

  19. Kristina Kalin says

    If the seats were never meant to be reclined, they wouldn’t have been designed that way. I am also tall, with long legs, and I fly often. I have NEVER been “inconvenienced” by someone in front of me who reclines their seat. Unless your knees are the same height as most people’s chests, your “leg room” will not be stolen from you because the person in front of you adjusts their seat by 2 to 4 inches (at the top). The people who get angry because someone reclined their seat are usually just complaining because their drink might splash a bit onto their electronics when the person adjusts their seat. I have a bad back, fly at least 8 times per month, and cannot sit at a 90 degree angle for more than 10 minutes.

    For those who rant and rave over this inconvenience, they have a few options: 1.) They can buy a first class ticket….first class cabins have plenty of room and you will generally not be bothered by the person in front of you. And yes, on long flights, I DO invest the extra cash or spend miles in order to have this luxury. 2.) They can choose NOT to fly. Any reasonable person should realize that fast transportation means that you may be crammed a bit closer to other people than you would like. You may have to listen to a baby cry. Oh well….if you can’t handle it and throw a temper tantrum, then DO NOT FLY. Pretty simple.

  20. Kristina Kalin says

    And yes, there are plenty of people who deal with back and knee issues, who cannot sit at a 90 degree angle for hours at a time….my back is a train wreck after 25 years working in medicine, having to push, pull, and drag heavy people. So yes, there are many people who need to recline their seats, or suffer excruciating pain.

    I don’t like listening to screaming children on flights….so I bring ear plugs. I don’t like sharing the cabin with people who will stay in the bathroom for an hour. I don’t like sharing the cabin with people who talk loud enough so that the whole plane can hear them. When I pay for a first class ticket, I don’t like it when everyone from coach rushes the bathroom that I paid a premium to use. I don’t like it when people block the lines to board, when it isn’t their turn. But these are the inconveniences that are a part of life….they are the price you pay for fast, cheap travel. I’m certainly not going to stomp my feet and force the plane to land. If all of these inconveniences become too much, then I won’t fly anymore.

    Often, the people who make a scene, whining and complaining about the most minor issues are the ones who are truly disruptive and make flying a bad experience. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses those objects that prevent the person in front of them from reclining their seat…..they are guilty of tampering with equipment and should be ejected off of the plane. Again, if they feel inconvenienced by the utilization of standard airline equipment, then they should pay for a first class ticket….or not fly.

  21. Anne C. Hanna says

    Kristina, way to be dismissive of problems you don’t personally have. I don’t see anyone here advocating causing such a disruptionthat the flight has to land, so I’m not sure who you think you’re arguing against with that. All I have been arguing here is the following four things:

    1) Airlines should not make the space between seats so small that they have effectively double-booked the knee/tray table/seat reclining space for a large fraction of the flying populace. Every discussion I’ve ever seen on this includes enough comments from people who *are* harmed by being reclined upon that I think it’s a serious asshole move to pretend that the current spacing is really reasonable, given the size and shape distribution of the population.

    2) If you want to recline your seat, it’s an asshole move to do it without giving the person behind you some warning, so that they can adjust their posture and possessions so as to not be harmed by your reclining. Devices like the “Knee Defender” can provide people an opportunity to protect themselves from “surprise reclining” (but they probably should not be used as a pure veto). I’ve never had somebody ask me before reclining, and I’ve heard enough stories of people being hurt by sudden reclining (and been hurt by it enough times myself) that I think it’s reasonable to want to be defended from it.

    3) It’s an asshole move to be dismissive of other people’s problems just because you don’t personally have them. I believe people who say that not being able to recline hurts them. Why are so many people so resistant to extending similar courtesy to those who say that being reclined upon (especially without warning) hurts them? It’s appalling to me the number of people who are explicitly or implicitly refusing to show any empathy whatsoever for reclinees, and only seem to care about recliners.

    4) The airlines need to stop fucking double-booking the knee/tray table reclining space. Because, seriously, WTF?

  22. Marnie says

    I travel rarely and am pretty short (5′ 4″ /162 cm) so this is generally a non-issue for me, but anyone whose argument is that people should just buy a more expensive ticket if they are inconvenienced, must live a pretty privileged life. There are lots of reasons people travel that aren’t just a matter of spending some fun money for a vacation, and upgrading to a more expensive seat is not within everyone’s budget.

    I would argue that much like internet access, air travel is no longer a luxury and for most people, it is an unavoidable part of both their life. Short of a regulation to increase seat size, there’s absolutely no reason airlines will increase the space per seat. As consumers, we have overwhelmingly chosen price over comfort, because most of us, in most situations can tolerate the discomfort and consider it a reasonable trade-off to save some money. So how do you balance the legitimate need many people have to travel, and the legitimate concerns taller and heavier passengers have with the limited space per passenger, in an economy where many people are struggling to make ends meet? I don’t know, but I sure hope there’s a better solution than telling people they can only have a basic level of comfort if they are small and/or financially well off.

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