Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian waded into a newly intense debate over reclining airplane seats last week, saying passengers should ask before leaning back.
“I think customers have the right to recline,” Bastian told CNBC during an interview. “I think if someone knows there's a tall person behind them and they want to recline their seat, I think the polite thing would be to make certain that it's OK.”
It's a hot topic – especially after the viral incident where an American Airlines passenger repeatedly punched the backseat of a woman who reclined into his space. Video of the incident spawned a week of hot takes on whether or not reclining is acceptable.
The Right to Recline?
Reclining has become one of the few ways for passengers to seize more space as airlines have crammed more and more seats onto increasingly tighter planes.
Across the industry, seat pitch – the distance from one seatback to the next – has shrunk from a norm of roughly 34 inches two decades ago to just 30 or 31 inches today. Check out Seatguru for your upcoming flight and you'll see that's the case.
American Airlines, for example, has retrofit many of its Boeing 737-800s that once held 30 rows of seats to install 33 rows. From first class to coach and even the lavatories, everything shrank in size. Less space = more seats = more revenue.
And it's not just legroom that's shrinking. Airlines have also added more seats per row; most airlines now squeeze 10 seats across on a Boeing 777 in economy, up from the previous norm of nine. To make it all worse, flights have never been more full, so your odds of flying with an empty seat nearby have gotten slim.
In Delta's case, Bastian defended the airline against these trends.
“We haven't reduced our pitch in our aircraft in years,” Bastian. “In fact, we're going the other way. We've been adding a lot more seats with more pitch with more space on our aircraft.”
That's true in some respects, and Delta's spacious new Airbus A220 showcases that mindset.
But that doesn't change the fact that space on Delta flights has shrunk over the last decade or two. More recently, Delta began limiting how much passengers can recline on some domestic flights – from 4 inches to just 2 inches in economy.
For his part, Bastian says he never reclines – he said he thinks it's improper for the CEO of an airline to do so.
“And I never say anything if someone reclines into me,” he added.
Maybe Bastian is wrong, maybe he's right. But it seems unfair for the CEO of any airline to set the standard for reclining, considering they created the problem in the first place.
Perhaps the airlines could have politely asked passengers first for permission to reduce how much space we have https://t.co/b3ubwrzw3l
— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) February 15, 2020