Andy Larsen: OK, buckle up, airline passengers. We’re going to talk about those reclining seats.

Polls show flyers are pretty evenly split among those who adjust their chairs and those who don’t, but reaching a solution that satisfies everyone may prove difficult.

(Ted S. Warren | AP) The interior of an Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane glows with blue lights, Monday, March 1, 2021.

I’ve labored my whole life under an apparent misconception.

I’ll be honest: I used to believe that if the entire United States Congress passed a bill that said you had to do something, and if the president of those same United States signed said bill ... you had to do that thing.

It turns out that’s not the case.

That’s what I discovered when doing my research for this article, on the pains of airline seats. You see, in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, there exists a pretty clear clause:

“Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this act, and after providing notice and an opportunity for comment, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft operated by air carriers in interstate air transportation or intrastate air transportation, including minimums for seat pitch, width, and length, and that are necessary for the safety of passengers.”

You see, for years now, airlines have been putting seats closer and closer together, making them slimmer and slimmer — even as the American public has been, uh, not getting slimmer. Seats that used to be 19 inches wide at minimum in the 1990s are now 17 inches wide; seats that were placed 32 inches apart are now just 30 or even 28 inches apart. Congress voted to put a stop to the slide — and the FAA has ignored it. In January, FlyersRights.org sued to tell the agency to get a move on, but nothing has come of the lawsuit.

Passengers, meanwhile, are still fighting over their reduced space. In particular, no subject draws more ire than the manners of seat reclining. Some, upset with how much the recline infringes on the napping, working or eating space of the passenger behind the seat, consider the practice rude. I confess that I like to get work done on the plane, and when the passenger in front of me reclines that seat, it shoves my laptop deep into my chest, making such work impossible. I get annoyed, albeit mildly, a classic small gripe.

Others point out that the chairs do have a recline function, and using the full functionality of the seat can hardly be considered out of line. Some say the recline relieves back pain or simply makes dozing easier. Who’s to say my work is more important than a fellow passenger’s sleep?

This can become contentious. Flights have been diverted due to fights between passengers over reclining seats; one plane actually burned $50,000 worth of fuel to make a safe emergency landing after such a fight. Mitt Romney was once physically attacked by a passenger on a flight after the Utah Republican asked him to move his seat to an upright position before takeoff.

So where does the public actually fall on the issue? We have a couple of good polls, but the one that asks the most follow-up questions and has open-source responses comes from FiveThirtyEight, usually known for its political coverage. The results are also broadly similar to other polls I’ve seen.

First of all: How many passengers recline their seats?

It’s pretty evenly split among those who recline more than once in a while and those who rarely or never do so. But do passengers find reclining rude?

About 41% find it at least somewhat rude, while 59% say it is “not rude at all.” Interestingly, the 538 poll also asked people about their height. Tall folks (as I defined it, those over 6 feet) didn’t find reclining significantly more rude than shorter passengers.

Let’s say a passenger is asked to not recline. Should the person in the chair respect that wish? Nearly two-thirds (64%) say yes.

Finally, only 30% would choose to remove the recline function on airplane seats.

But those 30% have support among a few low-cost carriers that have gone away from reclining seats entirely, including Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air. They, of course, are doing it because the reclining function makes the seats more expensive and slightly heavier.

Even the major airlines, though, are reducing seat recline: Delta, United, American and Southwest have reduced seat recline from 4 inches to 2 inches. The poll didn’t ask about that, though you suspect that those who prefer reclining be banned altogether consider this a half-measure.

So how do we move forward to a harmonious airplane cabin? Economists, those nerds, had an idea: What if passengers paid one another for the right to recline or not recline? In particular, a team of Christophers — Buccafusco and Sprigman — polled people about how much money they would offer, or how much money they would accept, to change their reclining regimen.

Creatively, they asked the questions in two scenarios, seeing how people would react in the circumstance in which reclining wasn’t allowed unless a payment occurred, along with our current setup in which the seats do recline unless the passengers come to an agreement.

Here’s the problem: No matter the default, respondents wanted more money to remove their own rights than the passengers they’re negotiating with wanted to pay. In a reclining seat world, passengers wanted $41 to not recline, but the people behind only wanted to pay $18 — only 21% of the time would surveyed passengers be able to come to an agreement. But if the question were phrased such that reclining wasn’t the default, passengers were willing to pay only $12 to recline, while people wanted $39 for their forward space to be infringed upon. (Here, a deal would have been completed 28% of the time.)

Why? It’s an economic principle: People hate giving up what they already have.

Interestingly, though, the same economists then asked another group another set of questions, this time anchoring the offer to a particular amount: Would you offer, or accept, $8 for someone to not recline?

More than two-third (68%) said yes, but only 23% of passengers said they could see themselves making such an offer.

When the offer was changed to a free alcoholic drink — worth about $8 on many airlines — then 78% would accept the offer, and 36% could see themselves buying that drink. The nonmonetary offer holds more appeal for both parties than hard cash.

That gets to the heart of the problem for economists: People don’t think about this stuff in financial terms. Feelings about reclining airplane seats are more about respect, manners, and the rights of the individual to make themselves more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation than they are about money.

In the end, the FAA does need to actually listen to Congress and establish commonsense seat minimums that deal with those uncomfortable times. These fights don’t need to get worse — and the free market isn’t the solution.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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