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I Am Now a Seat Recline Centrist

All good things in moderation. Photo: Getty Images

Man, a lot of you have asked me about Delta Air Lines’ announcement that it is retrofitting its fleet of A320 aircraft to reduce the amount that economy-class seats can recline by half.

Back in 2014, following the Knee Defender–water assault–United flight diversion incident that gripped America, I wrote a vociferous (and viral) defense of seat reclining for the New York Times. My defense of recline relied heavily on the airlines’ role as aggregators of customer preferences: If people hate being reclined into as much as you’d gather from Twitter, then why is there a button in your armrest that causes your seat to recline? You’d think an airline could easily gain a competitive advantage by promising a recline-free flight — unless, it turns out, the average customer cares more about the ability to recline his or her own seat than about sitting behind an unreclined seat.

So, if Delta is cutting back on recline — and doing so in a way that isn’t adding more seats to its aircraft at the same time — it must think this change will make customers happier and more inclined to fly Delta. It’s particularly notable that Delta is the airline making the change, since a key part of the airline’s strategy is to earn a fare premium over United and American by earning higher marks from customers for the quality of its in-flight product. I have no choice but to interpret this move as evidence that the public is not as pro-recline as I once thought.

I should note that, even as an advocate of seat reclining, I’ve never thought that recline should be unlimited. Obviously, you shouldn’t be able to recline so far back that your head is literally in your rear neighbor’s lap. The very same airlines that gave you the recline button also set a physical stop to the angle of recline. The appropriate maximum recline angle is context-dependent, and could change across space and time.

As Gary Leff notes, the planes where Delta is cutting back on recline are planes where it previously installed thin “slimline” seats and moved the rows of seats slightly closer together. I know a lot of people consider slimline seats to be hard and uncomfortable, but I’m a regular Delta flier and I like these planes. Still, I acknowledge that while a thinner seat reduces how “cramped” a denser plane will feel (and also enables the airline to burn less fuel per passenger mile), it doesn’t do anything about the fact that a steeply reclined seat in front of you will crowd your laptop more when the rows are closer together.

Delta also emphasizes that these planes also tend to be used for relatively short flights. So, while the cost of recline is above normal on these planes, the benefit from it is relatively low.

All of which is to say, in the context of these A320s, I can acknowledge that less recline is better. Leff also notes that Delta is moving itself into line with a recline reduction that American Airlines already imposed — with less fanfare — when it similarly changed seating on its own planes.

Still, to the anti-recliners, I would note: Two inches of recline is not zero. The apparent market preference remains that one should be able to recline to an extent that is appropriate for the seating context. Delta continues to advertise that its “comfort plus” seats on long-haul international flights recline an additional 50 percent — reflecting a consumer preference for greater recline as a premium product, at least when paired with greater distance between seats.

So, leave your knee defenders at home: Recline may be down, but it is not out.

I Am Now a Seat Recline Centrist