It's annoying as hell when you have your tray table down, trying to work or eat, and the person in front of you reclines, narrowing the already tiny gap between your knees and their seatback. To retaliate, you recline your own seat — it's your right, after all — and annoy the person behind you. It's a frustrating domino effect of travellers trying to reclaim their space. So who owns that space to begin with?
Photo by en Salter
Two law professors conducted an online survey to study the concepts of behavioural economics in relation to the reclining seat debate. They asked people to imagine they were taking a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles and that the airline implemented a new policy allowing travellers to pay the people in front of them to not recline their seats.
One group was asked to reveal the lowest amount they were willing to accept to give up this feature. Another group was asked to reveal the most they were willing to pay to keep the person in front of them from reclining.
The recliners wanted an average of $US41 ($55) to give up their right to recline, while the "reclinees", the people who were theoretically sitting behind them, were only willing to pay an average of $US18 ($24).
This suggests that the space belongs to the recliner, since they seem to value it more. The Economist explains:
According to the theories of Ronald Coase, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991, the space between airline seats is a scarce resource. Therefore it should not matter who has the initial ownership (assuming there are no barriers to a deal being made). The market will out: whoever values the space more will buy it from the other. (In this case it would normally revert to the recliner.)
But then they flipped the default in another experiment. Instead of haggling to give something up, told people they would have to negotiate to get the right to recline in the first place. They found that, in this case, recliners were only willing to pay $US12 ($16) to recline while reclinees didn't want to sell their legroom for anything less than an average of $US39 ($53). So what gives? In this case, it would seem that ownership belongs to the reclinee, who seems to value that legroom more.
The profs point to the work of behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman to explain the discrepancy:
People generally don't like losing things that they have. When a resource is provided to them as a default — even something as trivial as a pen — people tend to be unwilling to part with it. As a consequence, the least amount of money they are willing to accept to give it up is often much greater than the amount that they would be willing to pay to purchase the same item.
In other words, if an amenity is presented as a given like it is in the case of aeroplane seats, people don't want to give it up. Behavioural economics is tricky, though, and if you check out their entire study, you'll see that the answer gets even more complicated.
However, the fact that this feature exists as a default suggests the person whose seat reclines has control over that area. (If you don't like it, sit behind a non-reclining seat, if possible).
Travelling is cramped as it is, but it's so much worse when you're trapped behind a fully reclined seat. Avoid this discomfort by choosing a seat behind seats that don't recline at all.
On the other hand, if you're a recliner, at least have some manners. Don't recline your seat during meal service, don't slam it back, and if you really want to be polite, just ask. Here's what former flight attendant Beth Blair recommends at BBC Autos:
...the most successful "seat reclining" I've witnessed has been when the passenger wishing to recline turns around and addresses his or her planned move with the passenger sitting behind them and simply asking, "May I recline my seat?" A "yes" is usually given with a smile, and the reply is very rarely "no" — sometimes a "not yet". I've heard passengers say, "I'm working on my computer and really need the space. Do you mind waiting about 15 minutes until I'm done?
This seems like a silly, first-world problem, and it is, but considering airlines are seriously cutting legroom to squeeze more people on flights, it's also a legitimate one. In fact, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if airlines did start charging to recline.