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.