The economics of reclining your airplane seat

I believe Josh Barro started this mess of a debate.

I would emphasize the endogeneity of transaction costs.  The airlines could do a lot to encourage Coasean bargaining between fliers, but they don’t.  How about handing out little cards?: “Have a friendly haggle with the person behind you.  Last year the average price for a non-reclined seat was $16.50.”  They could print up standardized contracts, like how they distribute customs forms, including contracts for trading seat assignments or distance from the bathrooms or how you shush your child, or not.  Imagine being nudged toward a deal through the in-flight internet system, so you don’t have to turn around to face the other party in the bargain.  They could take a cue from Alvin Roth and his matching algorithms or help you set up complex multi-party deals, like how the Denver Nuggets used to construct (and then dismantle) their rosters.


The disutility of bargaining in this environment is high relative to the value at stake.  The chance of irritation or hurt feelings is non-negligible, and perhaps people on a flight are crankier anyway.  So the airlines deliberately keep the transactions costs high, as the gains from the potential bargain are low relative to the ickiness of the process.  The airlines wish to keep a lot of people away from the process altogether, if only out of fear of having to arrest people, divert flights, and so on.

That implies the more we debate this problem, the worse it becomes.  It also gives us the true Coasean answer to what is best.  Relative to current norms, who does more to make the whole question “an issue” — the seat recliner or the purchaser of the recliner-blocker?  Clearly it is the purchaser of the blocker and thus Josh Barro is broadly in the right, the norm should continue to allow people to recline their seats as that minimizes fuss, which is more important than getting the right outcome with the seat itself.

If you don’t like that, United does sell coach seats with extra space, which makes the recline of the person in front of you less bad.


It'd be funny if you gave the rear seat an override button. And unless you allowed the guy ahead recline privileges you couldn't recline your seat,

First world problems

Everything is amazing right now

"Making sparks with a phone!"

Yeah, yeah. He's not really as funny as you seem to think.

Who said he was funny?

Louis ck not funny? That is funny.

Overrated? Okay. Absolutely. But not funny? Does the word have a meaning then?

On Ryanair, you can't recline the seats. That alone more than redeems the rest of the airline.

I find this obsession with people in front of oneself reclining seats bizarre. What is the big deal? It is harder to use a laptop or put stuff on the tray table--so what? I would much rather be able to recline my own seat than have extra tray table space.

Note: I'm not tall, so sorry if I overlooked the fact that a reclining seat might get in the way of someone's legs. That is a bigger deal. But is all this fuss being put up by tall people? It doesn't seem like it to me.

I am tall. After one particularly hellish trip we started to pay extra for "premium" seats.

For trips of less than, say, eight hours, it might save a lot of trouble if there were only restricted ability to recline seats, or even none at all.

First they came for the tall people with long faces...

The contractual problem is that the airline is selling customers a 'variable' amount of seat-space... dependent upon the reclining-whims of whoever may be seated in front of that customer.

A reclined-passenger instantly seizes several inches of 'purchased-space' from the passenger behind him.

That passenger-behind must typically tolerate the seizure/intrusion... or continue the crime by seizing similar space from the passenger behind him. This domino effect occurs in odd patterns depending on personal attitudes and locations of non-reclining seats.

Reclining-Seats (at least in Coach) are an irrational artifact from the ancient days of wide seat-spacing and half-full airliners.
They should be eliminated completely in Coach... and passengers should know exactly how much seat-space they contract for when purchasing an airline ticket.

But the airlines don't care; they have enough paying passengers, government subsidies, and favorable regulation ... to maintain the status quo. Seat-spacing is just one of many routine assaults endured by airline travelers; rational people (especially tall ones) fly as little as possible

parryk: what causes you think of all unreclined seats as the default rather than all reclined seats?

It does affect tall people with long legs more than most. It's dependent on the airline, some air lines don't allow their seats to recline very much, some do. I've been on several flights before, where when the person declined their seat all the way, my knees were literally bearing the weight of the chair. In one notable instance the person in front kept rocking the seat back and forth to force it downward and since they were wearing headphones couldn't hear me complaining. I finally tapped them on the shoulder and asked them to pull it up some.

On the other hand, if the middle seat beside me is vacant, I'll shift my legs there and I'm fine. If not I'll ask the person in front to not recline as much. It's rare that someone won't just adjust their seat to the midway spot.

I am 6'4" and I start the flight with my knees firmly connected to the seat back in front of me. If that person reclines suddenly, their whole weight is on my kneecaps. I have to lift my legs slightly to reposition them. But I cant when the @$$#OI# is reclined. The pain is pretty intense.

My hips planted firmly on the back of my seat do not allow my legs proper positioning so I have to rooch around until I get it all back into some sort of alignment again.

For leisure travel I almost always have an aisle seat which helps. I a can also pick what type of equipment to fly, and I will pay more for international flights. But for domestic business travel I get what our travel website spits out. It's terrible.

Brian got it right, the slight increase in comfort you receive by reclining is more than offset by the decrease in comfort AND utility of the person behind you. On a long flight this is significant if you want to get work done or watch a movie on a laptop but are unable to because you're staring at the bald spot on the man in front of you for 3 hours.

My guess is that the airlines never want to be labeled "the bad guy" in anything for any reason. So when a passenger reclines their seat they are to blame, but if the airline intervenes the recliner can label them the bad guy. They have nothing to gain from promoting bargaining amongst the passengers as they can only lose so long as passengers can blame other passengers.

My first thought is that this has got to be the equilibrium. I think the whole thing is so bizarre. I am never comfortable on planes in coach anyway (I'm average-sized), and the extra three inches associated with "reclining" is comical.

On the other hand, the same three inches puts you into the lap of the person behind you. How in earth is your increase in utility even close to the guy behind's decrease in utility.

Unless, I suppose, everyone reclines the full three inches.

Maybe that's the way to do it. Seats A-C (left side) recline, seats D-F (right side), no recline. Deal?

So is this a Nash equilibrium? Sub-optimal by many measures, and the result of airlines competing for the lowest price by cramming too many seats onto planes. No airline can afford to reduce seats or lose out on low-price internet searches.

And yet, smaller people benefit greatly by this. Smaller seat space is fine and prices are very low. Seems like airlines have missed out on an opportunity to segregate the market better. It shouldn't cost so much more to get into the 10% of seats in business class. Maybe have half the seats in business class, costing 20% more?

"Unless, I suppose, everyone reclines the full three inches. "

If you're in the 6' 2"+ range there isn't room for your knees to physically fit if the person in front declines all the way.

The problem isn't reclining per se, it's the lack of warning to the person behind you.
- If you go back fast, I can't get my knees out of the way
- If you go back hard, especially if you're large, the top of the seat sways into my face (and that's without my head leaning against the forward seat or tray table)
- If you go back 2h into a long flight after I've already situated my laptop and am working, you're banging into my computer and throwing off my work after we've already established expectations, if not an equilibrium.

Simple fixes (that will never happen):
- Backup light or beeper like on trucks
- Backup camera
- Just put the seat in a reclined position--who has evidence that the 2-3" recline makes ANY safety difference? If it makes any safety difference, it's in the safety of the person behind you (increased odds of banging your face in crash), in which case, why should they be allowed that close together?

Great. Beep Beep. Now instead of annoying just you he annoys the whole row.

You should pay more attention in the safety video. They are actually asking you to position your face closer to the seatback in front.

How bout a coin operated crank from a gum ball machne? That uses tokens that roll out to the person behind you?

That would change the whole dynamic!

Guy behind you: C'mon recline. Go ahead. You know you want to.

They could put a ratchet in the button such that you have to press and release several times for full recline.

"the top of the seat sways into my face".

Wow, what airline are you flying? Never heard of that being a problem before.

Well, you obviously aren't a horse.


You are on a roll!

The transaction costs are bigger than just person to person awkwardnesss. You'd need a more robust solution than negotiation cards. There are a few issues that make this a crappy market: 1. Its a monopoly. If you don't have someone in front of you who wants to sell (or sell at your price), you are out of luck even if the identical middle seat on the other side of the plane would negotiate with you . 2. Informational Disadvantage -- Its in everyone's best interest to imply they are a recliner, snorer, or a poor caretaker of their children, to drive up their price.

Airlines already have fairly robust mobile apps -- at least the two I fly most often do. Would be an easy enough task to implement an auction system with automatic payment processing. Beyond recliners, I'm sure there are a lot of frequent fliers who would take cash over the free upgrades, not to mention crying babies, large seat neighbors, etc. And it would alleviate (from my non-expert perspective) most security concerns as seat assignments would all be tracked through the airlines system instead of random switch.

As far as I can see, both the monopoly and lack-of-information are common to most kinds of Cosean bargains. Two *particular* parties have a property right that can be modified at the edges, they can only by or sell to (from) each other. Note there is both a monopoly and a monopsony here.

> Airlines already have fairly robust mobile apps

Really? Their desktop stuff is barely usable even after 2-3 decades of refinement.

I always bring a $20 bill and some singles on flights. The $20 is in case the person in front reclines and I decide it is bothering me. I simply say, "Hey, I'll give you $20 to keep your seat upright. I'm kind of tall, so it's worth it," and flash the $20. Alternatively I might say I have some work to do on my laptop. Almost everyone is slightly putoff and confused for a second, but 90 percent accept as soon as they see the $20 and realize I'm serious.

But there are a few people (usually female, always old, and always an infrequent flier) who are so offended they refuse the $20. I simply say, "No problem, that's your right." I simply lean back and enjoy the fact that they are now in a bad mood and will definitely regret not taking the $20 in five minutes. If I can't extract 1.5 inches of leg room, I've extracted some utility.

The singles are to tip the flight attendants on cocktails, which is another surefire way to increase utility and free drinks.

Rather than take your $20, I'd offer to switch seats with you with the hope that maybe the guy in front of me won't recline. On a short flight, keeping the seat upright isn't a problem for me but on longer flights that angle kills my neck and back.

Asshole airlines.
Optional fees & Discounts as follows:

$10 to lock the seat in front of you into the upright position
$15 to lock the seat behind you if that passenger paid to lock you
$20 to unlock your seat
$5 "bag safety" fee
$5 "smells funny" fee for any passenger who stinks (passenger will first be given option of washing up)
10% discount if you can fit in overhead bin
50% discount if you stay in overhead bin for duration of flight
$100 fee (in total, not per person) to stick a passenger in the overhead bin

Don't EVER ride the red eye on that airline!

It's easy to say 'ban the device' the the other problem is that airline seats in recent years have become increasingly cramped . The bad new is that while there will likely never be a good resolution to this, the good news it' a very small problem relative other ones facing the world.

Actually, on the whole seats haven't become more cramped.

Extra legroom seating (which the guy using the knee defender was in) didn't exist at all 20 years ago, and certainly not pre-deregulation.

A large portion of cramped prop planes were replaced by regional jets and cramped 50 seat regional jets are being replaced by roomier regional jets that offer first class and extra legroom seating, more overhead space (more space overall).

While there are certainly airlines like Spirit and Allegiant that offer 29 inch pitch (and Spirit takes advantage of the news cycle to advertise that their seats do not recline at all, as though that were a benefit!), standard coach pitch was and remains 31 inches in the US and now there are coach seats with 34-35 inches on United, Delta, and American. That's new.

I wrote about this in 2010 as well as the day the current spate of stories first broke. And it isn't just theoretical, I've actually paid the person in front of me not to recline (as far back as the 1990s).

There may be social norms which make many people feel awkward about raising the issue with the person in front of them. But I don't see particularly negative consequences as likely to ensue.. If anything that would just drive up the price.

The airlines have little incentive to foster this sort of bargaining (flight diversions, though costly, remain exceptionally rare). Instead, their solution is to... offer seats with more legroom, at a premium in price. Pay the airline instead of the person in front of you.

Of course the initial story about the guy using knee defender was already in one of those extra legroom seats (which he gets for free as an elite frequent flyer). So Coase isn't the solution here, the guy turns out to be a jerk, and I wrote about the interview he gave as well where he says despite the confrontation, despite the flight diversion, despite the device being against airline rules, he'll use it again in the future.

I have a bad knee and that leg doesn't bend. When I used to fly (no more), I merely talked to the person in front of me and explained that I had a bad knee and if they reclined the seat to just let me know before they reclined so I could adjust my leg.

What's the big deal? Communication people, it's amazing!

"Your flying! Through the air! In a recliner!"

People complain about reclining seats? They should be complaining about the incursions on our civil liberties by the growing nanny police state, including the comically stupid TSA.

Slowly but surely, we are like the (mythical) frogs slowly being boiled to death.

Wake up.

Remy on the TSA

I have a bad back and must recline!

I would bet most of the cranky clients didn't pay for their ticket, the employer did. These employees remember the time when seats where roomier. So, get used to small seats or pay business. The folk that actually pay their tickets is happy with lower prices even if it means less space.

Who pays the paymen?

Interesting that the nightmair is a marginal principal-agent problem.

Awesome post. But couldn't we argue that this situation resembles a Prisoner's Dilemma since the norm here is that you don't bargain in social settings with complete strangers? Even if bargaining were commonplace in this context, doesn't the reclining seat issue falsify the Coase Theorem? See here, e.g.,

Awesome post. But couldn't we argue that this situation more closely resembles a Prisoner's Dilemma, since the bargaining in this context is not the norm? In any case, this situation effectively refutes the Coase Theorem, as in here:

Airplanes are so much easier to deal with when flying assisted with benzos, which is a much easier solution than silly coasian bargaining.

Planes vary a lot on how much legroom there is in economy and how well the seat recline function is designed. I am 6' 3" (1.9m) and on well-designed planes with reasonable space (best Emirates A380) this isn't much of a problem but it is pretty much impossible to use a regular sized laptop then (but that is pretty hard when your arms are as long as mine anyway so I don't try). On airlines with the least space (worst I've flown is Iberian) I can't even sit straight in the economy seat to start with. Others are OK until the recline happens. So it is really the airlines / aircraft manufacturers fault for bad design and cramped space rather than the passengers trying to use the seats.

Fully recline all seats. Bolt them in place.

I've always been more bothered by the encroachment from the side.

If you don’t like that, United does sell coach seats with extra space, which makes the recline of the person in front of you less bad.

FWIW, the recent publicized incident did occur in United's "Economy Plus" with extra space, as seen in this interview. The person using the device wanted room to comfortably use his laptop, apparently:

Beach complained, saying that he couldn’t work like that, but the flight attendant informed him that the woman had the right to recline. Both passengers were sitting in United’s Economy Plus section, which offers 4 more inches of legroom than the rest of coach.

I love this blog. And thinking in terms of economics for issues like seat reclining are always fun. But in the real world, talking like an economist ruins conversations. Tyler somewhat alludes to this by mentioning the high costs in bargaining etc.

Part of the benefit of prices [and of politeness] is avoiding the destructive cost of bargaining. Tyler Cowen is correct that in this context, the knee blocker is bringing up the issue, by forcing a debate, which makes the issue worse.

However, I don't believe this entitles a seat recliner. Reclining your seat for small amount of convenience in certainty that half the population will experience far more discomfort than your relative gain is not only rude, but ruins politeness and invites anti-social types to feel justified in purchasing & using knee blockers.

Thus, the matter is actually quite simple. Don't recline your seat. If you must, apologize for both bothering the passenger with the request and then asking them if it is okay. But 90% of the time, you should not recline your seat.

I've noticed that most of the people complaining about recliners are the same ones that dismiss the benefits of reclining - both, I imagine, are correlated with height. I'm relatively short; reclining makes me significantly more comfortable. I'm willing to sacrifice some comfort (for free even!) if the person behind me is actually uncomfortable, but I'm not willing to do so /on the chance/ they might be. Also, is it really a reasonable assumption that 50% of passengers are tall enough to be affected?

"Also, is it really a reasonable assumption that 50% of passengers are tall enough to be affected?"

Some percentage are physically affected by the reclining seat, but almost everybody would prefer the person in front not recline their seat because it reduces their available room in every case.

Almost everyone would prefer that the seat next to them be empty, but we aren't/shouldn't start purchasing tickets without the intention to use them. No one behaves like this.

I recline to ease spondylolisthesis.

Prof Cowen, are you sure this is a bilateral bargain?

Seems to me the airline holds the property rights (while the passengers imagine they do) and have decided to allocate it to the recliner, not the reclinee.

The market oriented answer is a $15 charge to recline your seat, you have to swipe your credit card along the armrest, after which a warning light goes off for the person behind you. That person then gets a $15 credit added to his account. Though in practice frequent flyer miles would work better, given that credit wouldn't benefit business travellers when the business buys the ticket.

A possible technical solution would be to make the seats work like a "wall hugger" recliner.

On these, reclining the seat causes the seat bottom to move forward, thus creating room for the recline in front of the seat instead of behind it.

On an airplane with seats using this principle, the recliner would reduce only the recliner's own legroom. Thus, no conflict.

Although in the short run, if it were my airline I'd just disable the reclining capability, as that surely would cost less than a few diverted flights.

I was going to post this... why aren't they at least going into new planes? There was a story a decade ago about how Delta was going to install these types of seats (which would also be staggered diagonally). What the hell happened to that?

From wikipedia:

"A newer innovation by Zodiac Seats U.S. (formerly Weber Aircraft LLC) is an articulating seat bottom, where the seat bottom moves forward in addition to the seat back tilting backwards.[3] Examples of airlines that have introduced such seats to some of their aircraft include Aer Lingus, Delta Air Lines, Emirates[citation needed], American Airlines, and Avianca. This feature was eventually adopted by competitors such as B/E Aerospace and Recaro."

And from HowStuffWorks, regarding the 787, "Boeing's launch partner, All Nippon Airways (ANA), picked a shell-style economy seat, which slides forward instead of hinging backward. This means that when you recline, it doesn't hinder the precious legroom of the passenger behind you."

So the this solution is being implemented in some limited cases at least. I'd imagine the cost of the seat in terms of both dollars and weight would be higher than a standard seat, so that's probably the reason for its limited deployment so far.

Existing reclining seats don't reduce anyone's legroom because they don't move the seat bottom at all, only the seat top.

The seat top will often crunch a tall persons knee. So it's inaccurate to say it doesn't reduce anyone's legroom.

Why do tall people deserve a subsidized trip?

Oh, there's no reason to subsidize the trip. I'm ok with causing as much pain to the person in front of me as they cause my knees until we reach a mutual working consensus.

I'm okay with charging by weight and volume.

That's a pretty good solution, Albi!

More importantly: why can't you pay to reserve overhead bin space? It's clearly more scarce than cargo space. Instead everyone has to play the game of trying to get on first to avoid gate-checking their bags, and you always end up with a douche who puts his bag behind him and shoves his way upstream to get it when deplaning. Make it an add-on to your ticket, so you can reserve the space right above your seat. Some airlines are starting to charge for carry-ons, anyway.

Everyone reclines. It makes it way more comfortable and does not inconvenience the person behind you at all 99+% of the time. These tree-people are trying to create a narrative to benefit their narrow self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

There are people who are tall and find the person reclining in front of them hard.

There are people who have bad backs who find sitting up straight quite painful.

The easiest solution is seats where reclining comes from a seat bottom that slides forward. Then you can make the tradeoff yourself (you reduce your own leg room by reclining).

The solution is a) remove the reclining function of the seats, b) have the passenger offer to pay the person behind her to allow a reclined seat c) the passenger discovers it won't recline anyway d) amused shrugs and chuckles all around, let's all have a drink and get on with our lives.

OK, I get it, this is an econ blog, and let's do a thought experiment about the possibility of negotiation and transaction costs (and whether the Coase Theorem works here). But really, this issue amazes me - no one can even talk civilly to anyone else anymore or be considerate of others. It really seems like it revolves around empathy and communication (without $ changing hands, or hacking the seat). I feel like I'm 100 years old (really only half that), but this does seem to be one of those situations where courtesy is less common than it used to be, and people aren't learning something that they should have learned in kindergarten.

Rowdy passengers are a solution to the problem. If enough people get into enough fights about seat reclining, people will begin to factor in a fist fight risk premium or a diverted-plane risk premium into their calculus.

how about having a reclining section and a non-reclining section?
People who have reclined don't mind if the person in front of them reclines.
rear rows and exit rows mean this can't be a perfect solution.
just like airlines let you pay extra to be in certain seats, maybe they'd let you pick those seats for a $10 discount?

I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting
my own blog and was curious what all is required to get setup?
I'm assuming having a blog like yours would cost a
pretty penny? I'm not very web savvy so I'm not 100% certain. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated.

The correct answer to this problem is for the airline to charge extra for seats that recline, not for the passengers to have to bargain over -- or be deprived of -- space they've paid for.

I've paid for the right to recline and so have you. If you choose not to use it, that's on you.

I refuse to fly anywhere in the US. If I can't get there by train, its not someplace worth going to.

On Amtrak the seating is more comfortable, roomier, and you can easily get up and walk around and stand if you like.

I'd be ok with Amtrak, except for the rudeness of the employees. I've never been treated with more disdain by an attendant than when I've ridden on Amtrak.

You'll need to take that observation over to the tenure/Tenure comments section.

Dont recline all the seats, incline the wings!

There is a nugget of truth. Who can guess what it is?

Tyler's last paragraph is wrong because it downplays the reciprocal nature of the problem. Josh is wrong because he is "defecting" by reclining his seat -- this is a Prisoner's Dilemma, not a low-transaction situation:

It's not a Prisoner's Dilemma because the two passengers can communicate. It does depend on basic civility.

What if one of the passengers (or both) are wearing headphones?

This is not a problem for me. I can pretty much sneeze whenever I want to. If Josh Barro wants to recline in front of me he can pay me not to sneeze on him.

Given the example of a chair reclining arms race, why would any real economist assume that the arms race would end w/ banning seat blockers and not escalate?. Stay away from real world stuff, you might get hurt.

The Coase Theorem fails again!

Ugh. I'd say these "norms" are worth reconsidering when we remember that most of these planes were designed and built in an era before the ubiquity of laptops - and well before the (relative) ubiquity of onboard wifi. Having your machine crushed by some callous recliner dingbat in front of you should not be an acceptable casualty of mere patterning ("norms"). It is something to be "updated," and the knee defender people are doing just that!

Also, I think anybody shorter than 5'11" should be forbidden from commenting on this issue at all. And Tyler, I'm afraid you've outed yourself as a very small man, indeed. Whatever the reverse of kudos is, please have them on this one.

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We started to try to match the interests of the passengers sitting one next to the other, with the idea of making the flight in a more pleasant company than the random pick of the airline. I'm wondering now if we should add also the choice of being OK or not with passengers in front of you wishing to recline their seat :)
I'm personally not that bothered by that as long as is not at the maximum.

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