Everybody has an opinion on reclining airplane seats

Open Seating

Recently a flight from LGA to JAX was diverted due to passengers engaged in a seat reclining battle. It was the latest in a string of diverted flights stemming from passenger disruptions over the right to recline. A flight from EWR to DEN was diverted to ORD because a passenger used the Knee Defender to prevent the seat in front of them to recline. A recent flight from MIA to CDG was diverted to BOS after a passenger became upset when the seat in front of them reclined, and they lunged at a flight attendant. 

There is yet to be agreed upon rules for airplane seat reclining. Many say it boils down to being civil. Others are calling for reclining seats to be banned from airplanes because it's been demonstrated that passengers can't be civil.  Even Miss Manners has weighed in - she blames airlines for installing seats so closely together that nobody is happy. 

Today on Slate, Christopher Buccafusco and Chris Sprigman look at the economics of seat reclining. How much would you pay for the person in front of you not to recline? How much would you pay for the right to recline? They conducted an online survey to answer those questions, and they found out:

Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average. Only about 21 percent of the time would ownership of the 4 inches change hands.
...
When we flipped the default—that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it—then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39. Recliners would have ended up purchasing the right to recline only about 28 percent of the time—the same right that they valued so highly in the other condition.

They go on to say that this is basically the "endowment effect" as described in the 1990 paper by (Berkeley professor and Nobel laureate) Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch and Richard H. Thaler, "Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem."

Decreasing seat size is just another way airlines engage in revenue management, along with itemized fees for everything. Airlines are already using dynamic pricing for fares. They also employ tactics to maximize flight frequency and aircraft size, though this can often lead to flight delays (which often results in higher fares). The boarding procedure is another area where airlines can be more cost effective, minimizing the time to board and turnaround time.

But will any of that get you more leg room on your next flight?