Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The economics of reclining airline seats

The problem of reclining airline seats and the related fights between passengers was a big thing in the media in 2014 (see here and here), but has been back in the media recently. The Economist's Gulliver blog had an excellent piece earlier this month entitled "Who owns the space between reclining airline seats?". It's an interesting read, and highlights several things we discuss in ECON100 and/or ECON110, including: (1) externalities and the Coase theorem; and (2) quasi-rationality and endowment effects.

If Person A (who is sitting in front of Person B) reclines their seat, they reduce the amount of space available to Person B. This is a negative externality (an adverse impact of one person's actions on the wellbeing of a bystander). There are a few things we can take away from this example. First, as Coase originally noted, externality problems are jointly produced by the person who creates the externality and the person who is affected by it. If no one was sitting in Person B's seat, then there would be no externality problem. The externality problem only exists because of both passengers' actions (Person A reclining their seat, and Person B sitting in the seat behind). [*]

Second, the polluter pays principle is not always the best solution to an externality problem. The polluter pays principle essentially says that the polluter (in this case, Person A) is always at fault any must avoid the actions that affect the other party (by not reclining their seat), or pay them compensation. If we believed the polluter pays principle is the best solution in this case, no one would be allowed to recline their seat.

In contrast, the Coase theorem suggests that if private parties can bargain without cost over the allocation of resources, they can solve the problem of externalities on their own (i.e. without any government or other intervention). As Gulliver notes:
According to the theories of Ronald Coase, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991, the space between airline seats is a scarce resource. Therefore it should not matter who has the initial ownership (assuming there are no barriers to a deal being made). The market will out: whoever values the space more will buy it from the other. (In this case it would normally revert to the recliner.)
What happens if we allow passengers to make these bargaining solutions? We really don't know, as no airline has ever tried it (as far as I know). However, Gulliver writes:
Would such fights be prevented if ownership of those four inches were up for auction? This was the starting point of an experiment by Christopher Buccafusco and Christopher Jon Sprigman, two law professors, which they have written up on the Evonomics website. 
Their aim was to discover whether recliners’ pleasure at being more horizontal is greater than the amount of suffering this inflicts on the person behind. One obvious way to do this is to put a monetary value on it: find out how much the flyer in front would be willing to pay for the right to recline his seat, and compare that with the amount the person behind would be prepared to shell out to stop this from happening. 
In an online survey the researchers asked people to imagine that they were about to take a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. Respondents were told that the airline had created a new policy that would allow flyers to pay those seated in front of them not to recline their seats. Some were then asked how much the passenger behind would have to pay them not to recline during the flight. Others had to specify how much they would be prepared to pay to prevent the person in front of them from reclining.
I suggest reading up the Evonomics article by Buccafusco (Cardozo School of Law) and Sprigman (NYU School of Law), as there is lots of interest there. Note that it is a stated preference study - we don't know for sure what people would actually do when faced with these choices, but this is what they said they would do:
Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average. Only about 21 percent of the time would ownership of the 4 inches change hands...
That sounds fine, and was based on the current default set of property rights - that people have the right to recline their seat. But then things got interesting:
When we flipped the default—that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it—then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39. Recliners would have ended up purchasing the right to recline only about 28 percent of the time—the same right that they valued so highly in the other condition.
So, when people had the right to recline their seat, they wanted $41 to give it up. But, if they didn't have the right, they were only willing to pay $12 for that right. If that seems odd to you, then welcome to the world of behavioural economics. The Coase theorem suggests that the initial allocation of rights should not matter, because if the person who values the right the most doesn't start out with it, they will simply purchase it from the other. But what Buccafusco and Sprigman found suggests that this simple solution might not work. What they found was an endowment effect.

Because people are loss averse, losses make us much less happy than an equivalent gain makes us happier. For example, losing $10 is more bad news than finding $10 is good news. One of the consequences of this is that we are unwilling to give up something that we already have - we require more in compensation to give it up than what we would have been willing to pay to obtain it in the first place (this is what we call an endowment effect). Note that endowment effects are working for the 'reclinees' as well - they are willing to give up their extra knee room for $39 if they had the right to keep it, but would only be willing to pay $18 to get that right if they didn't start out with it.

The endowment effect means that this problem isn't really amenable to a simple solution, because recliners already have the default rights, and are understandably unwilling to give those rights up. And any change in policy is going to incur passenger protest - because even though we may gain knee room, passengers would be giving up their right to recline, and loss aversion almost ensures that would be a painful and unwelcome trade-off for most passengers.


[*] Of course, Person B probably has little choice about where they are seated. But, there are plenty of other examples of externalities where there would be no problem if the affected person was simply somewhere else. One example I've blogged about before is people who choose to live next to mushroom farms.

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