Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space?

Grounded flights brings out the best in Slate:

An investigation into the economics of reclining.
By and

Not since the Battle of the Somme has such little space been the subject of such intense conflict.

We refer to the fact that Americans are now punching each other on airplanes over 4 inches of space. Specifically, the 4 inches that a coach passenger gains—and that the passenger directly behind loses—when he reclines his seat a few degrees from vertical.

For the recliner, those 4 inches can transform a hellish flight into something fractionally less awful. But it also works the other way around. The guy behind the recliner loses the same 4 inches, space that might otherwise accommodate knees or a laptop.

It sounds trivial, and it is trivial, and we hope that everyone will agree that people who get in fights over airplane seats are idiots. But there are, apparently, more than a few idiots. Fistfights over the right to recline caused three flights to be diverted and forced to make unscheduled landings in a two-week period.

Some blame the airlines for cramming ever-more seats into airplane cabins, decreasing legroom and personal space. That is certainly part of the story. But maybe not the entire story—at least one of the incidents involved a United Airlines Economy Plus seat, which has up to 5 extra inches of legroom compared to a standard coach seat.

Some blame the Knee Defender, a device that passengers can use to prevent the seat in front of them from reclining. The Knee Defender was used in one of the incidents, but not in the others, and most airlines now ban its use.

Views on the “right to recline” are divided, but both sides tend toward intensity. Slate’s Dan Kois has said that people who recline their airplane seats are “pure evil” and that reclining should be banned. But a lot of the people commenting on Kois’ article say he has it backward, that if you buy the seat you have the “right” to recline, and that people who complain about reclining are a pack of whiners.

We are split on this issue. Buccafusco doesn’t think that recliners are evil—but he does think they are misguided. Buccafusco suspects that recliners don’t get nearly enough pleasure from reclining to offset the suffering they’re inflicting. Sprigman’s intuitions are precisely the opposite. He enjoys reclining, doesn’t care if those in front of him do likewise, and maintains that people who complain about reclining need to get some perspective on what a real problem looks like. 

If we disagree about the merits of reclining, we agree at least that dispassionate economics is more likely than righteous moralism to get us some clarity about whose preferences should rule. Economics is fundamentally concerned with precisely the sorts of questions involved in the “right to recline” debate: who should get to control scarce resources when people are competing over them.

The leading approach to figuring out questions like these comes from Nobel laureate Ronald Coase. He suggested that if it’s easy to make private deals to distribute scarce resources, then it doesn’t necessarily matter to whom the right is assigned initially. Whichever person values it more will simply purchase it from the other.

But note that this is the case only when there are no barriers preventing the parties from negotiating. These barriers, which economists call transaction costs, could include the time and difficulty of figuring out with whom you must negotiate, the resources required to exchange offers and other information, and any other cost that attends negotiation. When transaction costs are high, efficient distributions of the resource won’t take place because people won’t bother to bargain. In those cases, Coase says that the resource should be given to the parties we expect will tend to be the highest-valuing users. It’s not perfect, but if we do it that way, at least we get it right most of the time.

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