Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian is six-foot-three, as is American Airlines CEO Doug Parker. This isn’t a coincidence — male CEOs are on average more than an inch taller than adult men as a whole, and among CEOs, greater height is correlated with higher pay. Even tall men who don’t rise to the C-suite tend to live privileged lives in ways that go beyond seeing well at concerts and easily reaching high shelves. They earn higher incomes and receive more messages on dating apps. Height is a blessing. So forgive me if my sympathy for tall men who complain about how uncomfortable it is to sit behind a reclined seat in coach is limited.
To be fair, Bastian — who weighed in on the interminable seat-recline debate on Friday — is not a complainer. (As far as I know, neither is Parker.) Bastian really does fly coach a lot: In 2018, he told the Wall Street Journal he flies coach on most domestic flights, and he instituted a corporate policy that requires senior Delta executives to fly coach on all flights of three hours or less. And as he told CNBC on Thursday morning, he doesn’t recline his own seat, because he doesn’t think that would be a proper thing to do as CEO, nor does he object if the passenger in front of him chooses to recline. Bastian knows he has it good in life; he can manage in close quarters and defer to the comfort preferences of the passengers who surround him as necessary.
But Bastian did weigh in, a little reluctantly, on the question of whether the rest of us should recline our own seats. Somehow, this question has been repopularized on the basis of an obviously unacceptable behavior: A passenger in the last row of an American Airlines plane repeatedly punched the seat of the woman seated in front of him because she had the audacity to recline her seat. The norms here are clear: There’s a button to recline your seat because that’s a thing you’re allowed to do; there’s no button to shake the seat in front of you because that is a very rude and unacceptable thing to do. And yet some people on this garbage internet have taken his side, because we don’t live in a society anymore. And that got CNBC talking about the recline issue.
Pressed by CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin about whether reclining is generally okay, Bastian said, “Customers have the right to recline … but I think the proper thing to do is, if you’re going to recline into somebody, that you ask if it’s okay first.” He later elaborated that he thinks someone should ask first “if someone knows there’s a tall person behind them.” Tall solidarity, I guess.
What I think Bastian has right is that this is a coordination problem. Reclining reallocates comfort between two passengers, but as I first wrote about this in 2014, the failure of passengers to routinely negotiate solutions to the problem of not wanting to be reclined into suggests to me that people are not as bothered by recline as they claim to be when they are bored on the internet.
The other thing Bastian has right is that airlines play a key role in intermediating recline disputes. People blame greedy airlines for putting them in the position where a seat can be backed into their knees, but if there was market demand for recline-free flights, you’d expect airlines to remove the recline function from their seats and promote their non-reclining seats as a feature that would induce passengers to pay higher fares. Instead, un-reclinable seats are something you find on low-cost, crappy-experience carriers like Spirit. You have to pay extra for a seat that reclines, which is a reflection of an aggregated consumer judgment that a recline feature is good, not bad. Sorry, haters.
But that doesn’t mean recline is good in unlimited quantities. Bastian pointed out on CNBC that Delta has adjusted the seats on some of its fleet — especially planes with relatively little legroom serving short routes — to reduce the allowable angle of recline. American has also made similar adjustments, which strikes me as a fine tweak in response to consumer preferences. Bastian should keep his focus on these sorts of technical solutions instead of urging customers to have more awkward conversations with strangers who might respond by punching their seats.