In other words, is it something you’re entitled to do independent of the wishes of the passenger behind you, or something you do only to
the extent it doesn’t inconvenience them? What if you want to sleep and they want to eat or work on their laptop?
Lucky says it’s his right but he doesn’t exercise it in coach on day flights, but does in first class, and that the problem is worse in first due to greater recline and only marginal better pitch (distance between seats, or technically from seat back to seat back). I understand where he’s coming from, I’m especially frustrated being scrunched in domestic first, but won’t ever claim that other passengers reclining their seats in first class is an even worse problem even if it’s one that I experience more often than in coach.
I agree with Lucky though that reclining is the passenger’s right. The norm is that you have control over your seat. In an environment surrounded by masses of people you pretend no one else exists.
Several years ago the Knee Defender was introduced, a rubber clamp that an airline passenger can use to prevent the seat in front from being reclined. It hasn’t sold well, and was even banned by more than one carrier (at least American, Continental). That tells me there’s a norm against preventing passengers from reclining their seats.
I was once in coach flying Cleveland – Los Angeles. I paid a young child, with mother’s consent, $5 not to recline her seat. I got four hours of work on my laptop as a result, a great investment of $5 indeed. In that case the initial allocation of property rights belonged to the child and we found a Coasian bargain.
The better solution is, I think, simply this: United Airlines. If you’re going to fly coach, holding recline constant, seek out additional legroom. The lowest level of elite status with United secure ‘economy plus’ for you, an extra 3-4 inches of legroom. Well worth focusing loyalty, because it maks the whole question a less urgent one.