Property Rights and Reclining Seats


Originally published in English on the Notes on Liberty page.

From time to time a flight is redirected because of problems on board. It may be that a passenger is misbehaving and the pilot decides to land so that he or she is removed from the aircraft.

In August 2014 the Associated Press reported in the US that a flight had been redirected due to a passenger fight over the reclining seats. It looks like a passenger has tried to recline his seat and the person behind has used a Knee Defender, a fitting that can be installed to prevent the front seat from reclining.

Years earlier, Josh Barro had written an article in National Review (July 2011) that applied the Coase Theorem to this type of situation. According to Barro, the rear passenger could negotiate with the person wishing to recline the seat to offer him some money with the condition that the seat was not reclined.

According to the Coase Theorem, if the cost of the transaction is low, it is enough that the rights are clear (in this case, the right to recline the seat), that such rights will be negotiated until they are allocated to the economic agent who cares most about them .

Theorem is "partially agnostic" about the morality of this kind of situation. It does not matter much who gets the right initially, as long as it is clear and respected (and by recommending respect for this right the Theorem is not also one hundred percent "agnostic").

High transaction costs would interfere with the allocation of rights. The passengers would be reluctant to negotiate. Because of this, economist Donald Marron suggested in his blog in 2014 that the person behind the seat to be reclined should initially own the space as far as the seat reaches when reclining. This would save a round of negotiations in most cases, assuming that many people do actually bother when seats are reclined in front of them.

Commenting on the episode of the redirected flight in August 2014, an article Barro wrote for The New York Times is a replica of Marron and is limited to approaching low transaction costs. Barro does not think it is that difficult to negotiate the right to recline with other passengers.

However, there are several important issues that I have not seen being addressed in this debate. To begin with, even if the airline is regrettably not allowed to defend its property (the aircraft) as it likes, due to safety regulations, the truth is that the airline still owns the plane. This includes each of the seats. And that seems very clear to me.

What's more, while not a detail that comes to mind right away, it seems that non-reclining seats (those in the back seat) are usually available for the same price as regular seats. If, on the contrary, they were clearly cheaper, then the implicit idea would be that the ticket you buy also gives you the right to recline your seat, even though it would reflect the price difference. The airline could clarify this, obviously, in the small print of the contract. Anyone who wanted more space would automatically be paying for more space. Even in economy class.

Of course, there is also the question of people being of different sizes. The taller or heavier ones are not well served by the space normally available. Some companies offer more, and some less space. I can not help but imagine that if this variable were really important (as it seems to be), then competition in the civil aviation sector would open up a wider range of services offered and creative solutions dealing with passenger space on board . Greater competition, moreover, could lead to a decrease in the price of space on the flight. However, the civil aviation market is heavily regulated, so it is more difficult for this opportunity for improvement to arise.

Finally, there is also the question of the Knee Defender. Of course, without explicit rules, a passenger can obtain and use an Ombudsman. It will certainly disturb the person who wants to recline the seat. The airline can intervene in this situation, making it clear that the person has paid for a seat that reclines. The airline may even have a special rule prohibiting the use of Knee Defenders on board. That's because she simply says so, because the plane belongs to her.

In short: if you pay for the displacement and rent a seat on the aircraft to use it on the flight, the full package could also include the right to recline it. If you bring in a Knee Defender, the airline could veto your use, or a passenger could buy it from you (in the absence of such a dictaphone from the company) so that you can recline your seat.

Why all the fascination with applying the Coase Theorem? It may be that good old property rights - less morally "agnostic" - work very well in this kind of situation.


Barro, Josh. “Coase in flight,” National Review, 29 de Julho de 2011. Disponível em: Acesso em: 2 de Abril de 2018.

Barro, Josh. “Don’t want me to recline my airline seat? You can pay me,” The New York Times, 27 de Agosto de 2014. Disponível em: Acesso em: 2 de Abril de 2018.

Coase, Ronald H. “The problem of social cost,” Journal of Law and Economics 3 (1960): 1—44.

Marron, Donald. “Who owns the right to recline? Property rights in the sky,” Donald Marron: Musings in Economics, Finance, and Life, 26 de Agosto de 2014. Disponível em: Acesso em: 2 de Abril de 2018.

“Plane diverted as passengers fight over seat reclining,” The Guardian, 26 de Agosto de 2014. Disponível em: Acesso em: 2 de Abril de 2018.