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Why Do Airline Seats Recline?

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Those of us over a certain height constantly complain about the cramped conditions in coach class airline seating. Dan Kois argues that one way to alleviate the problem is to remove the ability to recline seats into the knees of the person sitting behind you.

Ding! Instantly the jerk in 11C reclines his seat all the way back. The guy in 12C, his book shoved into his face, reclines as well. 13C goes next. And soon the reclining has cascaded like rows of dominos to the back of the plane, where the poor bastards in the last row see their personal space reduced to about a cubic foot.

Or else there are those, like me, who refuse to be so rude as to inconvenience the passengers behind us. Here I sit, fuming, all the way from IAD to LAX, the deceptively nice-seeming schoolteacher’s seat back so close to my chin that to watch TV I must nearly cross my eyes. To type on this laptop while still fully opening the screen requires me to jam the laptop’s edge into my stomach.

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same. But of course someone always will recline her seat, like the people in the first row, or the woman in front of me, whom I hate. (At least we’re not in the middle seat. People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.)

[...]

It’s time for an outright ban on reclining seats on airplanes. I’m not demanding that airlines rip out the old seats and install new ones; let’s just extend the requirement that seats remain upright during takeoff and landing through the entire flight. (Unlike the stupid electronic-devices rules, there is an actual good reason for this regulation: Upright seats are safer in a crash, and allow for easier evacuation.) To those who say such a rule is unenforceable, I respond: Kick. Kick. Kick.

Megan McArdle, who’s herself 6’2″, demurs:

I infer from this that Dan Kois is not afflicted with lower back trouble.  I would not be better off if no one reclined; rather, I would be hobbling off the plane in agony, looking forward to a day or so of recuperating in the hotel room. Sitting bolt upright for a long flight can leave me near-crippled for days, as I once found out through an unwise seat selection.

Which is presumably why the airlines have chosen to keep the reclining chairs.  A large proportion of the US population has lower back trouble, and while you might find a seat reclining into your space inconvenient, the people who’d have to spend three vacation days in the hotel room care a whole lot more than you do.

Ultimately, then, her advice for people like Dan and myself is: pay extra for seats with more leg room. But that’s not an option for most of the flying public; business class is absurdly expensive and even the seats with a sckosh more legroom come at quite a premium. And, as Megan acknowledges, the latter are not widely available.

The reasonable solution would be to install slightly pre-reclined, fixed pitch seating. Spirit did this a couple years back. Put people’s backs in a relatively comfortable position and keep a constant distance between the seatback and the knees. It would still be too tight for tall people but it would at least have the virtue of preventing that crushing sensation when the person in front reclines.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Fiona says:

    I’m another one who hates it when people in front of me decide to recline, smoothing me into my seat. And I’m not all that tall at 5’7″. It makes flying, which has increasingly become an unpleasant experience, all the more so. I’d be happy if airlines did away with reclining seats or adopted the Spirit model.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  2. Ben says:

    As someone who is on the tall side (6’2″ish) and overweight-but-not-obese, I find that airline coach seats are so insanely small that all time spent in an airplane is going to be utter misery and discomfort, no matter what the people around me do. Alas, a first-class seat is so absurdly expensive that I’ll never get the chance to try it in my lifetime, so I simply avoid flying in all situations except absolute necessity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Jen says:

    I’m short, and the recline helps me with a problem no one tall has: the neck rest hits at the back of my head, creating a very odd angle for my neck. I don’t recline the seat on short (anything less than 3 hours) flights, but if I have to sit bolt upright for 5+ hours, I end up with neck pain for days.

    Because I am short, the person in front of me reclining is fine too.

    In my perfect world, the seats would recline, airlines would take a few rows out so that everyone has more room, and just charge more for plane tickets across the board. Adjusted for inflation, air travel is probably less expensive today than it was a couple of decades ago, and cramming more seats on the plane is part of the reason. Of course it will never happen, it’s anti-competitive, but yeah, I do wish everyone had more room.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  4. john personna says:

    I wonder where James is going with the parable of the seat backs. That everyone should have one angle does not seem a “freedom” or “free market” solution … thought perhaps he is leading us somewhere with that.

    (Why seat backs and not light bulbs?)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  5. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: This is a private market situation with a tragedy of the commons built into it. It makes sense for the airlines to create a Nash equilibrium to maximize customer satisfaction.

    Megan’s right that charging premium pricing for additional legroom makes sense. But coach seats should maximize the comfort level available in the tight space allocated.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  6. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    If it is truly an efficient solution, or an equilibrium, each flight should reach it without intervention. Without mandate.

    Which is why I think short flights tend to be chair-up and long flights progress to all-down. With just a little social messiness.

    Of course there is the whole “semblance of control” aspect, with relatively small ranges of choice even on “adjustable” seats.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. JKB says:

    Just saw this new seat design today. Unlikely to bring relief to coach but perhaps lower the cost and number of improved class seats. Or perhaps airlines will accept the loss in economy seats if the can sell enough extras to compensate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. john personna says:

    (But again, if you think the totalitarian authority that is a small kingdom in flight can “mandate for maximum customer satisfaction,” surely larger kingdoms on the ground can do the same.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Scott says:

    @James Joyner: Of course, charging more for the right to recline is also an option.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    This Kois fellow actually wrote:

    It’s time for an outright ban on reclining seats on airplanes. I’m not demanding that airlines rip out the old seats and install new ones; let’s just extend the requirement that seats remain upright during takeoff and landing through the entire flight.

    At first I figured this was an Onion-style satire, albeit fatuous and hackneyed even by the standards of mediocre satire. But then it hit me this guy is being serious.

    By the same (ahem) logic, we also should have (1) an outright ban on honking one’s car horn, (2) an outright ban on people parking too close to each other in parking lots, (3) an outright ban on people crowding onto elevators, (4) an outright ban on fat people sitting or standing too close to non-fat people on planes, trains, buses and ferries, (5) an outright ban on barstools being nudged too close together, (6) an outright ban on bringing noisy babies onto any modality of public transport, and just for good measure (7) an outright ban on people annoying other people.

    Honestly the Internet-academe-media-chattering classes cabal really needs a collective mental enema. Or to just blast themselves off into outer space.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5

  11. john personna says:

    @Scott:

    The libertarian solution would be to “buy” the right from your rearward neighbor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. New Here says:

    @john personna: I don’t see why the Coase Theorem wouldn’t work in this case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. grumpy realist says:

    Well, if you want space, there IS business class and first-class….

    What’s that? It’s more than you want to pay? Blame the free market, my friend.

    (Actually, airline companies run on such thin margins that they’re constantly falling into bankruptcy. I’m less worried about the angle of the seats than I am for the possibility of lax inspection and counterfeit parts getting used for repair. You guys wanted cheap airline tickets; that’s what you got.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  14. john personna says:
  15. Scott says:

    Regular seats are so bad that I’ve looked longingly at the jump seats the flight attendents use. Today’s flying makes a C-130 without heat seem comfortable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  16. Mikey says:

    Airline seats have always (or, nearly always) reclined.

    In the past, not a huge deal, but in recent years airlines have sought to maximize carrying capacity by moving the rows closer together–seat pitch has decreased from 34″ to 31″ in the last 20 years or so.

    However, according to the airlines, improved seat-padding technology has resulted in thinner seat backs and therefore legroom hasn’t been adversely affected (coughbullshitcough). So reclining remains.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  17. CSK says:

    I’m tall and long-legged, so flying with my chin on my knees is wretchedly uncomfortable for me. But I’d probably rather do that than sit for three hours next to someone cracking gum. Can we get the death penalty for those people?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  18. John H says:

    @James Joyner:

    “But coach seats should maximize the comfort level available in the tight space allocated. ”

    Catering to the comfort of giants and giantesses out there in the third deviation of sizes would not seem an effective approach to maximizing affordable comfort. In fact, the market seems to be getting this one right, much to the dismay of plus sized libertarians. (Yes, it’s easy to be smug when you occupy the true center of the size issue.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  19. Ben says:

    @John H:

    In the U.S., about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or over. We are not talking about freaks and giants here; that’s a pretty large proportion of the population. The average male height has gone up almost 4 inches in the last century. We’re getting taller, and we can’t keep cramming people into smaller and smaller spaces. Well, we can, but they’re gonna get more and more pissed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. rudderpedals says:

    @James Joyner:

    But coach seats should maximize the comfort level available in the tight space allocated.

    Why? Minimizing pitch and comfort yields a better return on capital. Remember the market is bloody claw self-interest, not enlightened self interest. Facts on the ground deem your seating comfortable enough right now thank you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  21. JKB says:

    A long time ago, I read a report of someone who’d did an economic study between coach and first class going back to horse drawn carriages. You have to realize, there isn’t a big difference between the two in reality. Both arrive at the destination at the same time, etc. And there is a limit on how many amenities they can offer to induce people to purchase the first class ticket. So, to enhance the disparity and induce the payment of much more for the same basic service, they purposely do not make coach more than sufferable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. Rob in CT says:

    I’m short, and the recline helps me with a problem no one tall has: the neck rest hits at the back of my head, creating a very odd angle for my neck. I don’t recline the seat on short (anything less than 3 hours) flights, but if I have to sit bolt upright for 5+ hours, I end up with neck pain for days.

    Oooh, ooh! I second this!

    I’m 5’6″, so while I’m short for a guy I’m hardly a midget. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me we have a classic one size fits none problem here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Neil Hudelson says:

    I’m on a flight about 10 times a month, mostly from Indiana to the west coast–so a good 4 to 7 hours at a time, depending on location and weather.

    The author should just do what I do. Hone your ability to sense when the person in front of you is a recliner. Then simply push gently against the seat soon after take off. As soon as the person tries to recline, simply don’t let him/her.

    Am I an asshole for doing it? Of course. But at 6’5–most of that in the legs–I’ll go to extreme measures to preserve a few more inches of leg room. Politeness be damned.

    Also, Ms. McCardle, lay off the histrionics. I’m sure you have bad back problems, but I seriously doubt the 5 degrees is the difference between you feeling great and you being crippled with pain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  24. Rob in CT says:

    Also, as someone with a really screwy back, the tiny bit of recline you get doesn’t help me much, if it helps at all. Maybe it helps McMegan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Megan McArdle says:

    @Neil Hudelson: You are sure, and yet wrong. A six hour flight in an upright seat will literally result in me being out of commission for at least the next day. I don’t work in an upright seat either if I can avoid it; I either work on a treadmill, or on a chaise lounge. But at least desk chairs have some give. The problem is not as uncommon as you think, though it is invisible to those who don’t have it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  26. Andre Kenji says:

    The point of the recline seat is that when everyone reclines that seat that´s sufferable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. John H says:

    @Ben:

    Well, that was all largely tongue in cheek, but I’m willing.

    The question was about maximizing overall comfort, not the comfort of just the exceptions. 14.5 times (an increment of comfort) is so much less than 85.5 times (a decrement in comfort), that we probably don’t need exact stats to conclude that improving comfort for the exceptions at the expense of the much larger middle group will result in an overall decrease in comfort. Whenever you optimize for a general population, those that are well out in the 2nd SD (not the 3rd as I quipped) will always lose out.

    The increase in size you refer to was due to nutritional and environmental factors that have largely equalized and stabilized throughout the industrialized world, and the potential increases in size resulting from them have been largely realized. In fact, if the future of those factors progresses as it did at the beginning of the industrial revolution there could well be a decrease in overall size, as happened then. Population pressure and decreased access to nutritional and medical resources are certainly not out of the question, while there is no reason to think our access to nutrition and medical care will, or even can, improve significantly. There is no reason to assume that we will ever have a world full of people over 2 meters tall.

    The argument is moot in any case because even if the hypothetical increase continued, all that would happen is that the average would rise. The airlines would still be driven to arrange things to appeal to the majority of their customers when their efforts to pack ‘em in started affecting their fill rates. They might move back to 34″ seat pitches, but then the complaints would come from the new “14.5 percenters” who would tower over the new average folks and look on 34″ seat pitches as puny. A new tyranny of the normal, but still, a tyranny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Megan McArdle:

    Then you have my sincere apologies. I, too, have bad back problems–it runs in the family. I find the recline can relieve a little bit of pressure but not nearly enough to make a difference in the long run.

    I promise, if you are ever in the seat in front of me I will not block you from reclining :).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. grumpy realist says:

    @Megan McArdle: Then why don’t you pay the extra for a seat with the extra leg room? Or pay for business or first class, if it’s that uncomfortable? Why are you complaining?

    Sheesh. Libertarians…..the Free Market produces something they don’t like and it’s only THEN that they start bitching about it….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  30. al-Ameda says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Sheesh. Libertarians…..the Free Market produces something they don’t like and it’s only THEN that they start bitching about it….

    Hahahahahahahahaha!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  31. rodney dill says:

    You get what you pay for…. at best.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Larry says:

    Yes, by all means, lets defer to the rabble who can’t be separated from their precious laptops for more than two minutes. I’ll be more than happy to suffer a little discomfort for you to be able to scrawl some useless emails or watch youtube videos. Here’s a thought: fly business class so you can hang with your fellow elitists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @rudderpedals:

    Facts on the ground deem your seating comfortable enough right now thank you.

    And will continue to do so as long as you buy coach tickets.

    I take a Republican attitude on this, I paid for a reclining seat, I can use it. And I don’t mind if the person in front does too. The most productive thing I can do on an airplane is sleep, and that’s hard to do upright. And I can operate an iPad either way. Don’t sweat the small stuff, I’m happy as long as the airplane arrives intact at the right place, and does so more or less on time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  34. Scott O says:

    I don’t understand the problem here. I’m 6′ and I’m not at all bothered by the seat in front of me reclining. The intrusion is so minor as to be almost negligible. I am bothered by the lack of leg room but when I can fly round trip across the country for less than $500 I really can’t complain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. Dee says:

    The second I hit a seat I recline. I dont ask for permission and never will. When flying the miserable airlines my comfort comes first. You took smoking away from people, you will never take reclining Dont like my seat reclining on your fat belly? Lose weight fatso.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 7

  36. Franklin says:

    Haven’t read all the comments, but here’s my solution: F**k you McArdle, why don’t *YOU* pay more for a seat that reclines?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  37. Siri says:

    According to some the airlines are trying to make people in the economy section as miserable as possible so that they upgrade to better seats, If they really want to make people upgrade, then the reclining seats should come with a premium price and only in economy plus or similar. If all you can afford is economy, then let it be true economy where all passengers are absolutely equal where no one can recline and give themselves more space.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1