Reclining Seat Airline Blunder (2014 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

You can never please all the people all the time, and that bromide certainly fits the airline industry. Charge a premium price that includes all amenities, or sell tickets as inexpensively as possible and require passengers to pay for food, drinks, blankets, and overhead bin space. There are large numbers of customers who prefer each of these extreme arrangements. Management has to decide what part of the market to target.

And while airline executives cannot hope to develop policies that are universally appreciated they should do their best to avoid situations that inflame animosity. Several recent incidents have been reported in the national news where passengers have had rancorous in-flight battles over reclining seats. In at least one case a plane had to land before reaching its final destination to allow feuding rivals to be escorted out of the aircraft.

What is the source of this type of conflict? Some passengers enjoy reclining their seat when they fly. They find it relaxing and in many cases the only way they can get sleep on a long flight. However, passengers who sit behind recliners have their space diminished. Taller customers are frequently upset when a reclining seat bumps their knees or makes it difficult to use the tray table in front of them. A few back-seat passengers have purchased the Knee Defender device which attaches to the tray table making it impossible to recline the seat. Naturally, passengers who prefer to lean back when they fly are irritated when someone thwarts them.

Why is the problem so acute now? For decades airlines have had reclining seats, but battles between passengers have been rare. A large part of the problem is attributable to the airlines’ deliberate policy of stuffing more seats into the cabin – thereby reducing everyone’s leg room. If there were fewer seats and the seats were far from each other nobody would care one way or the other if a fellow passenger reclined his seat. But the closer the seats are to one another the more a slanted seat cuts into the space of the person behind.

This is a perfect example of the (often misused) phrase “zero sum game.” One passenger’s gain in space and comfort is equal to another passenger’s loss. It is an ideal way – if that is the objective of the airline – to convert passengers who otherwise might not notice one another into bitter competitors.

Who is in the right? First, let’s identify who has the legitimate authority to resolve the reclining seat controversy. It is the airline. The owner of any business sets the rules of conduct. Airlines have decided to have reclining seats, how much the seats recline, and how close they are to one another. Airline management is supposed to be focused on optimizing the passenger experience which should pay off with customer loyalty and increased business. To the extent that an airline does a good job of delivering excellent service it deserves to succeed. Conversely, if its policies arouse resentment among its customers the airline has itself to blame.

What does the world look like from the reclining passenger’s perspective. He might be thinking, “I paid good money for this seat, and I am entitled to lean back. If the guy behind me doesn’t like it he can offer to pay me not to recline since the purchase of my ticket gives me the right to do so.” Note that to the reclining passenger the fact that he bought the service from the airline and the seat reclines trumps any consideration for the other passenger who also paid. It is, thinks the recliner, the airline’s job to deal with the back seat customer.

From the back seat passenger’s viewpoint the recliner is rude, since it is obvious that the leaning-back-invader has taken over space at another customer’s expense.

In the present crowded-plane, reclining-seat world of air travel it is not surprising that many passengers feel resentful when they fly. Some reclining passengers might have been verbally attacked for slanting their seat. Some will feel unsatisfied because – while they wanted to lean back – they refrained to avoid molesting their backyard neighbor. Back seat passengers who did not complain could feel bitter that they had to tolerate someone leaning into them. If a back seat passenger asks a recliner to keep his seat upright he might feel uncomfortable that he had a confrontation he wanted to avoid.

The airlines created this mess and it is their job to fix it. They are clever people, and there are many possible solutions. If they are intent on cramming as many people as possible into an airplane they might disable the reclining seat feature altogether. This would have the virtue of not turning passengers against one another. Alternatively, they could employ a seat that reclines by moving the seat forward (rather than tipping it backward). A passenger could achieve the reclined position by reducing his own space (without cutting into his neighbor’s territory).

Airlines will never be able to please everyone. But the reclining seat blunder could have been avoided if management had paid better attention to the customer experience and its implications for the business. At the very least airlines can develop policies that do not provoke customers into becoming adversaries.

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