Airplane Seats and the Prisoner's Dilemma

I suppose I should weigh in on the great airplane seat lean back or not kerfuffle.  A number of tall people like Megan McArdle have argued for leaning seats back.  I am in the opposite camp, despite being 6-4 and even taller than Ms. McArdle.  And the reason is sort of ironic, given McArdle's old blog title and twitter handle:  the benefits for leaning a seat back are not symmetric.   When the person in front of me leans their seat back, two things happen:  1:  my knees get scrunched and 2.  I can't use my laptop any more because the screen will not raise (given the position of the table and angle of the seat).  Leaning my seat back does not fully relieve either of these.  In other words, I gain less knee room leaning back than I lose from the person in front of me leaning back.  It is a form of the prisoner's dilemma where looking at only my choices, I  am always better off leaning back.  But I am worse off if everyone leans back.  My gut feeling is that everyone must experience the same thing.  Which is why there has grown up an unspoken agreement among most frequent flyers not to lean seats back, just as the solution to the prisoner's dilemma is for the prisoners to collude and keep their mouths shut.  I greatly appreciate McArdle's work and she is one of my favorite writers, but on airplanes she is the prisoner that cheats.

PS-  Brian Lowder argues we should go back to dressing up when we travel.  Yeah, we used to put on coats and ties to fly when I was little.  Well, I'll go back to dressing up when airplane travel goes back to being romantic again.  But that ship, not to mix metaphors, has already sailed.  The odds are that in a given week, at 6 feet 4 tall, my four hours on an airplane are the least comfortable four hours I spend all week.  I am not going to make it worse by putting on a coat and tie.  I dress in the most comfortable clothes I can, which means baggy cargo shorts and a polo shirt.



  1. Milton:

    I agree that this is the prisoner's dilemma and we'd all be better off without leaning. But until the airlines agrees with us and stop letting the seats lean back, I will keep on leaning my seat back regardless of what the person in front of me is doing- I have not noticed this "unspoken agreement" you mention.

  2. Bill:

    From the "Everything reminds me of something in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' file:

  3. tmitsss:

    When I was 14, and had dreams of being an Olympic sailor, I flew to Michigan wearing a sports coat and tie. The Airline lost my luggage and I was at sailing camp without appropriate clothing. Lesson learned. Next year them camp was in the Bahamas rather than on Lake Michigan, which is another lesson learned.

  4. MGW:

    I travel extensively for work ((I'm writing this on a plane right now) and I completely agree that there is an unwritten agreement among those who travel all the time to not recline seats unless it is either a very early morning flight (i.e. 6am) or a late night or overnight flight. Reclining slightly is still ok if you check behind you before you recline. But really, it's quite discourteous to simply slam your seat back without looking. You don't open doors where you can't see suddenly and you shouldn't do the same for seats.

    This topic came up in our office before the whole knee defender scandal and all of us older employees (meaning 28+) that travel frequently were strongly against reclining, while the younger employees (fresh out of college) that only travel a few times a year thought we were crazy. I guess they don't have enough work to do if they can go a whole flight without using their laptop.

  5. LoneSnark:

    I have not noticed any such "unspoken agreement" you mention. That said, I guess it is just me, but other than less space for my laptop, I notice no benefit to the person in front of me not reclining. I'm very tall and my legs are already too long to not hit the seat in front of me, so I stick my legs underneath the seat in front of me. Problem solved. As such, it seems to me the issue is whether your knees hit or not. if you're short enough, then even with the seats reclined your knees should be unaffected. If your tall enough, you'll hit whether they recline or not. Only you and other tallish people who have legs just right to fit in the space between reclined and not reclined are being hurt here. As such, it seems you constitute a vocal minority which cannot be happy, because the majority sets market policy.

    Think of it this way. If Congress passes a law and all sits are fixed unable to recline, there will suddenly be an inch or two of leg room the majority of passengers don't want for leg room (they're too short or too tall) which the airlines will then just move the seats that much closer together.

  6. Bruce:

    I say it depends. When I am flying the redeye from Houston to London, me and everyone else reclines and sleeps. When flying back starting in the daytime, I don't. But that last leg when I have been up for over 20 hours, I do.

  7. Mr. Banks:

    As far as unspoken rules go, the passenger in front has the "right" to recline back. I also have the right to put my tray table down and constantly move it forcibly around, thus moving the entire seat back infront of me, and use my knees to push the seat back, which irritates the hell out of the person in front of me. Only once have words been exchanged. I said something to the effect of "what are you going to do about it". Being one of the large 6'5" 245 lbs type of people, he shut up. But while it did not resolve my problem of not being able to utilize my laptop or move my legs freely, it did make me happy to know that the person in front of me was not comfortable as well. Perhaps I am rude for doing that, but that's the way of life on today's modern airlines.

  8. Mondak:

    I always dress nice when I travel. I am not much of a plane talker, but you never know who you will be sitting next to. Nothing over the top, but a collared shirt, nice pants and shoes seem to help things go okay when asking for upgrades / reroutes etc.

  9. Brad Warbiany:

    I try not to be an utter slob when I travel, but unless I have to dress for work (i.e. I'm going directly to a meeting or coming directly from a meeting with customer), I try to be comfortable. Shorts in the summer, jeans in the winter, and I have no qualms about flying in a t-shirt.

    As for the recline, I'm also a big guy (6'5", 270#) and I rarely if ever recline my seat. I spend my time on the plane reading rather than sleeping, and just can't comfortably read my Kindle when I'm reclined. As for work, being my size it's basically impossible to use a laptop on a plane [in coach, anyway], so I just avoid it whether the person in front of me reclines or not.

    Like LoneSnark, though, my legs are long enough that I'm screwed whether they recline or not. I try to get my feet as far under the seat in front of me as I can to get my knees lower. As a result the angle of lean of the seat in front of me doesn't really affect my legs at all.

  10. Andrew_M_Garland:

    The airlines have set up a modern social experiment which reminds me of psychologist Stanley Milgram's study in the 1960's.

    ( )
    === ===
    [edited, arranged] If a person in authority ordered you to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person, would you follow orders? Most people would answer with an adamant NO. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of obedience experiments with surprising results. 26 of 40 participants delivered the maximum shock (to their knowledge) to the other person (an actor) when encouraged to go on. 14 participants refused.
    === ===

    The airline sells a ticket to a cramped seat, and it authorizes the passenger to use options that bother someone else. The airline is in authority, and the passenger has paid for the privilege.

    Almost all people retain their empathy for others. They recline just a little, or they ask if they are bothering the person behind them. Some are empowered by the airlines rules and do what they want. Ordinarily, they wouldn't do this, they would see the discomfort they are causing, but they feel empowered by authority.

    The airline is only a weak authority, so it doesn't convince many to become bullies.

  11. Sam L.:

    You wear shorts? Prof. Ann Althouse hates you!

  12. Not Sure:

    I don't fly that much but my experience has been that if the person in front of me reclines the seat, it's probably a little kid.

  13. mesocyclone:

    I'm in the "don't lean back" camp. I'm big and tall, and experience substantial discomfort if the person in front of me succeeds in leaning back (I resist with my knees - there's no place else to put them).

    I have found it amazing that many people think that it's okay for them to just slam their seat back. As far as I am concerned, a direct intrusion into personal space is a lot more serious than losing the ability to lean back.

  14. Daniel Barger:

    "We get what we tolerate".....
    Don't like being groped and sexually assaulted? Don't fly. Don't like being herded into a tuna can with wings? Don't fly.
    Don't like paying to take your luggage with you? Don't fly. I could go on and on but the fundamental fact is that the airlines
    and the assclowns in Mordor on the Potomac treat air travelers like shit because they can....because that treatment is accepted.
    When the airline industry finds ridership cut in half or less AND are told plainly and clearly that society is sick of being treated
    like cattle it will end. As long as people are willing to tolerate abuse that IS what they will get. I have not been on a plane since
    2000....and I will NOT be getting on a plane EVER AGAIN as long as the abuse continues. If enough people felt that way and
    ACTED THAT WAY the problem would be solved.

  15. hcunn:

    Airlines could experiment with keeping seats upright on one side and allowing reclines on the other side. Passengers willing to accept either side could get a modest discount

  16. hcunn:

    Current seat intervals are adequate for children, many women, and other short people. Tall people who complain are told to pay ten times as much for a first class seat.
    Proposal: require airlines to keep a modest number of seats in the economy section with more leg room. People would buy their tickets first, and then ask for the longer seat area, paying a surcharge (50%?) high enough to meet the extra cost and discourage those who don't need the room. Tall passengers would have an affordable option to torture, while shorter passengers would not have to pay for space they do not need.

  17. marque2:

    Spirit airline does this. For $20 you can "upgrade" to seats in the front of the plane with a bit more legroom.

  18. marque2:

    If I were in college and were in a study by the psychology department and asked to give a lethal electric dose to some person in another room - I would completely go for it because I would know it is a set up.

  19. bigmaq1980:

    This is all like talking about the etiquette of queuing for a loaf of bread in the Soviet era.

    Sure, butting in line is rude, but when you are Mr. Banks' size, "might makes right".

    It is all a distraction.

    The real problem is the airlines. They and airports are highly regulated, creating huge barriers of entry for new competitors.

    They can now do as they like on seating, including standing...

    It will probably take something disruptive such as air taxi service - think a combo of Manhattan yellow cabs and Uber, but across the continent.

  20. RickCaird:

    The other thing that happens with reclined seats is, if I have to get out, it is hard on my bad knees to get out because the seat back of the seat in front is actually reclining over my seat making the seat aisle inaccessible.

  21. obloodyhell:

    }}} Well, I'll go back to dressing up when airplane travel goes back to being romantic again.

    Wait, what? You mean you don't think of some fat, dumb high-school dropout of a TSA agent fondling your junque as the beginning of a romantic adventure?

    Quelle Suprise!!

  22. obloodyhell:

    Half of what you complain about is the government not the airlines.

    As far as the airlines go, they are responding to price pressures. The real solution is to go back to three-class seating, with the middle tier mildly more expensive and with more space between rows, probably adding 6" extra per row and enough of them to eliminate one row of seats... parcel out the lost income among the "middle class" seating. Then the people who care more about a $100 saving can have their extra leg room for 3-6 hours. This doesn't even need to be a separate area as it used to be, just a section in the "cheap seats" with more space between rows, probably at the front or the rear of the non-business class section
    }}} Don't like paying to take your luggage with you? Don't fly.

    This comment, by the way, is utterly retarded. Why should I pay the same, with my one luggage item (primarily just so I can take along toiletries, to say the truth) as some old fat lady with 4 pieces of luggage? And if everything I need for my trip fits in a carry-on, why should I pay the same as someone with checkins? I'm adding less weight to the plane, and so costing the airline less. This is basic economics.

  23. obloodyhell:

    I think it calls for a proposal: "Put your seat back up so I can be reasonably comfortable, and I promise I'll be far more careful about your comfort"

    That way he knows you're not being an asshole just because you can be.

    Another clear alternative is to ask before it starts, try and seat yourself behind someone who doesn't plan to put their seat back, and/or look to see if the person behind you has "normal" height.

  24. JW:

    Why is this news? Have the criminally annoying and self-absorbed taken over everything good and pure?

  25. LindaF:

    There should be seating that takes advantage of this - say, left-side seating for those who like to lean, right-side seating for those who don't (in the reclining position, my back hurts).