Here we go again (reclining airplane seat controversy edition)

File this addendum under “backward induction,” a strategic concept that will be familiar to anyone who has studied game theory. Regarding the latest airplane seat controversy (#reclinegate), the one that occurred on an American Airlines flight from New Orleans to Charlotte, a lot of people are saying that the lady in the video (Wendi Williams) should not have reclined her seat in the first place because the man in the back row (who is admittedly the biggest jerk in the world) was in a seat that did not recline. The problem with this observation, however, is that it ignores the logic of backward induction. In brief, if a passenger in the next-to-last row should not recline her seat because the last row does not have seats that recline, then the person in the third-to-last row should not recline their seat because the person in the next-to-last row isn’t able to recline, and if the person in the third-to-last row should not recline their seat, then the person in the fourth-to-last row shouldn’t either … By this logic, no one — not even the person in the first row! — should be able to recline their seat.

prior probability

The Washington Post (via Natalie B. Compton) recently published “The completely correct guide to reclining on an airplane.” The problem with The Post’s guidelines, however, is that they are not only incomplete (what about commuter flights?); they are also inconsistent (since the application of this set of complex and multifarious rules depends on a wide variety of subjective factors, like the height of the reclinee). As a public service, then, I am reposting three of my previous blog posts on this subject:

  1. The Airplane Seat Dilemma (10 Sept. 2014) (where we note the “reciprocal nature” of the right to recline versus the right to legroom);
  2. The right to recline? (3 Oct. 2014) (where we explain why disputes over the “right to recline” on airplanes are a textbook example of a situation involving unclear or contested property rights);
  3. The problem of reclining airplane seats (7 Oct. 2014) (where we summarize our…

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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