The Economics of Reclining Seats During Flights

During my flight home, the passenger in front of me turned around and mumbled something, and when I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” the passenger across the aisle from her said:

“She asked you if it would be okay for her to recline her seat.”

“Oh, yes, that’s fine.”

“I don’t want us to have to land at a different airport,” she said, referring to the three flights that were recently diverted due to fights over passengers reclining their seats.

We laughed.

Earlier, we had been told that our flight had been sold out, but as we took off, the middle seat in my row remained empty. The person sitting by the window (I prefer the aisle seat) high-fived me.

“More space for us!” she exclaimed. Which is why I didn’t mind so much when the person in front of me asked if she could recline her seat (not that I would have ever said no anyway).

At Slate, two law professors ran an experiment to “measure how much people value the ability to recline compared to extra knee and laptop room.”

In an online survey, we asked people to imagine that they were about to take a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. We told them that the airline had created a new policy that would allow people to pay those seated in front of them to not recline their seats. We asked one group of subjects to tell us the least amount of money that they would be willing to accept to not recline during the flight. And we asked another group of subjects to tell us the most amount of money that they would pay to prevent the person in front of them from not reclining.

It turns out that Barro was right: Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average. Only about 21 percent of the time would ownership of the 4 inches change hands.

But it also turns out that Barro was wrong and Marron was right. When we flipped the default — that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it — then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39. Recliners would have ended up purchasing the right to recline only about 28 percent of the time — the same right that they valued so highly in the other condition.

Wait … what?

The problem with this experiment is apparent to me: I don’t think passengers would actually feel comfortable negotiating with one another to receive payment to recline or not recline their seats. If someone were to ask, “I’d like to recline my seat, would you take $5?” I’d just say, “Oh, it’s fine.” Though it’s important to note that I’m not a tall person, like my poor friend who is 6’4’’ and was on the same flight as me.

That friend paid an extra $30 for legroom, but he paid it to the airline, and not the passenger in front of him. And that’s how it should be.

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