Delta is Reducing Seat Recline – and That’s a Good Thing on Short Flights

Delta plans to cut recline by 2 inches in both first class and economy on their Airbus A320 aircraft. They say this is a move to increase passenger comfort, and I actually agree with this.

  • Reduced recline is bad for the passenger who wants to recline, and good for the passenger who doesn’t want to be reclined into.

  • When there’s enough distance between seats plenty of recline doesn’t mean reclining into someone behind you, but that’s not the reality of US economy travel today.

  • Delta says they are not going to add seats to these planes, so it’s just about how passengers are able to use their existing space. It’s naturally to be skeptical of this, but remember that Delta has already added seats to their Airbus A320 aircraft and has about 5% more seats than American’s (legac US Airways) A320s

When Seating is Tight Reducing Recline Helps Passengers Work

Delta has invested heavily in satellite internet for its fleet, as has American, which is something that differentiates those two airlines from United. Delta has also marketed itself heavily as a carrier of choice for business customers, who pay more and need to work. Reclining into a laptop is a problem, so reducing recline is a way to make passengers better able to work on board.

Recline Matters Most on Long Flights With Tight Seating and Uncomfortable Seats

American Airlines has reduced seat recline in coach from 4 inches to 2 inches with their new ‘Oasis’ retrofit (domestic standard). That’s necessary now that they’ve gone to just 30 inches from seat back to seat back. Tight pitch is untenable when the passenger in front can recline into you.

If you take 30 inches of pitch as given, then reduced recline is a must. The problem with those American seats, though, is that they lack padding as part of the effort to squeeze in more row. Grab half a inch of padding and reduce recline and the ‘personal space’ at each seat may be similar between 31 and 30 inches of pitch. But it’s less comfortable sitting in those seats for any length of time.

  • There just isn’t as much cushioning for passengers’ backs and back side

  • And they can’t disperse the pressure of their bodies against hard seats by reclining as much

Reduced recline is a problem in combination with (1) slim line seats and (2) long flights. American doesn’t just deploy these aircraft on one and two hour flights, but flights of six hours or longer as well.

Delta was an early adopter of slimline seats. Recline is especially important with these seats. Some of their coach seats on the A320 still ahve 31 inches of pitch, while other seats have just 30 inches like at American.

However Delta makes the point that most flights on their A320 aircraft which are going to have more limited recline are short, one to two hours.

Why Reduced Recline is a Good Thing?

If you take tighter seating and less comfortable seats as a given, you must reduce recline. Delta already did tighter seating and less comfortable seats. But they didn’t compensate by reducing the ability of passengers to recline into the space of the customers behind them.

And when space is reduced passengers are more likely to try to get back as much space as possible by reclining as much as they can. That’s a recipe not just for less productivity, but also for rising passenger tensions.

We shouldn’t celebrate the need for less recline, because it goes along with less comfortable seating overall. Nonetheless Delta essentially failed to make this change earlier and is coming back and doing something necessary to correct that failure.

Ultimately I do need to distinguish between less comfortable seats with less room on short flights and less comfortable seats with less room on longer flights. Product matters a whole lot more once you get beyond two hours.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary — These standard domestic first class seats are starting to resemble seats on a 1700s slave ship. Pretty much all of my transcon travel from ATL to CA will now be through NYC, even if it wastes several hours each way.

  2. I do not like the reduced decline seats. I am even seeing them in business class. No way to get comfortable for sleeping in a long flight.

    The problem is, reducing pitch to under 32 is totally pathetic. The slim seats are way uncomfortable. Not sure why they cannot get an office seat manufacture to show them how to make comfortable seats. My web office chair is really comfortable.

    If I was not a free marketer, I would lobby the government to require seats have a pitch of 32 or above with a width of 17.5 inches or wider. (LOL. And require that every airline get locked into one of their seats for 30 hours each month.)

    I laughed at Gene’s slave ship comparison. However, I add jokingly, I am sure iron chains are too heavy for airplanes. So we get to keep our seat belts for now.

  3. Typo above. To rephrase: the FAA should require that every airline executive (VP & above) spend at least 30 hours locked (like chains) into one of their worst seats every month. LOL: if someone made me King or Emperor, that would be my first declaration. In fact, I might put slimline, no legroom, no width, no recline seats in my dungeon. Probably get a 100% confession rate.

  4. If we’re concerned about passengers in economy or extra-legroom seats using their laptop computers then we better get rid of the middle seat because using a computer will always be problematic in a fully occupied row of three seats. As soon as you get working and plug it in, the person next to you always wants to get up. Plus, even if they don’t to get up there really isn’t enough room for all three people to use a computer comfortably at the same time.

    The real problem is Americans are fat. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. If they weren’t so fat they would fit just fine.

  5. We here at The Airline that likes purple hues are contemplating the installation of church pew type seating.
    That solves the recline isuue and eliminates any padding.
    We’ll probably test it on our IAH-SYD flight before the end of this month.

  6. Wow… if this was AA, you’d be screaming bloody murder. But it’s delta…
    So we’re talking about their A320 that already has the tiny lavs, already has 30” pitch in economy, already has First class seat pitch (36”) lower than an AA Oasis 737 and… already has more total seats than AA and UA A320 and now they’re reducing seat recline and you write an entire article glorifying Delta and how wise they are to reduce seat recline?
    Delta’s PR machine is ridiculous enough, are they really paying you so much to lose any remaining objectivity you have?

  7. Gary,
    I’m really disappointed in your putting an advertisement for the “Knee Defender” in your blog!! WTF??!! These should be banned from use, as they only feed animosity and bad results among passengers. I have witnessed 2 violent reactions to their use. Promoting unrest is not something you, of all people should do. You have a certain responsibility to the rest of us to not foment certain actions/reactions by endorsing a product that have been shown to cause problems. I expect better of you!

  8. @Lou…Leave Gary alone. This is his site and Gary can do whatever he wants. Don’t get mad at him because Leff is getting $ gUaP $ and you’re possibly hating!

  9. @lou abad – there is no advertisement, there is no link, i am not encouraging anyone to use it — I am using it as an example in highlighting the battle over recline.

  10. AMEN. DL seating is way worse then AA IMO, Note that AA now has more MCE seats on similar planes than DL Comfort (way too much for it) Plus. DL is also putting more seats on similar types of aircraft then AA is (A320 – AA 150 / DL was at 162, now 157 / A319 AA 128 / DL 132, etc. . .) I much prefer an AA Oasis 737 compared to a DL 737-900 with IFE any day.

  11. @GaryLeff. LouAbad is hating on your side hustle success. You have no obligation or duty to explain jack $#!# to him. All that fool is doing for us is helping us get more $ gUaP $ online, improve our SEO, and increase our “affiliate marketing side hustle millionaire” potential. Maybe he would stop his suspected hating if he knew how to get started blogging and dabbling with affiliate marketing and start supporting those already doing it and successful with “side hustle affiliate marketing.” 🙂

    Am I riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight I say? L 😛 L

  12. Unofficial poll: If you find slimline seats uncomfortable (like truly uncomfortable, you’re not just complaining on the internet because you can), what is your height and weight?

    My un-tested hypothesis is that heavier gentlemen – and ladies – do not find the padding sufficient. I am 6’0″ 185lbs and they feel fine to me. Even on 4 hr flights DEN->EWR. I struggle to understand what the constant complaining is about, but maybe it just doesn’t affect me.

  13. So AA cuts down recline/pitch and that’s bad (I agree).
    Delta does the same and now magically it’s good?
    BTW, the same sentiments are also echo’d over on FT. The AA forum, I don’t recall anyone saying “yay” to AA and their “oasis” with reduced pitch/recline/etc.

    But I’d say probably 90% are FOR this on Delta.

    I don’t much care for it on either. Unfortunately most of my flights are the first one in the morning 5-6 a.m. (which means getting to the airport at like 3:30 or 4:30 a.m.), so I actually like to sleep (in a reclined position). Apparently I’ve been “rude” and should expect to pull out a laptop and do work at that time (although the majority of the cabins have been full of sleeping passengers, in my experience). Perhaps now nobody will be sleeping (or sleeping very well with only 2″ to recline).

  14. At Steve S.
    MOST American’s are overweight (particularly compared with our European or Asian neighbors) but while the size issue is DEFINITELY a problem in America (can you say corn syrup in EVERYTHING?) another significant problem is BACK PAIN/INJURIES! Americans at large suffer from ridiculously high numbers of back pain, it is a BILLION dollar industry selling to people who have back injuries and pain, with remedies ranging from the mundane like pain pills and chiropractic to more exotic remedies being sold at crazy prices all over for pillows, machines, devices, rubs…you name it. A slight incline may not matter to you, but for someone like my husband who has rods/hardware in his back, it can make all the difference in the world in him being able to tolerate a flight of any distance and he’s thin (31″ waist). I have severe arthritis in my back and hips from three accidents where idiots ran into me, two while stopped at a red light, and having to sit completely straight upright is like torture. We have a ridiculously high number of auto accidents in the U.S., and a LOT of damaged people as a result.

  15. Totally unfair to compare US airlines to slave ships. Slave ships always had complimentary snacks even in steerage.

  16. I flew round trip earlier this week aboard Delta Airbus A320s for an overnight trip NYC-Florida and back – so under 3-hours aboard when including waiting for departure plus taxiing/waiting time at LGA.

    Outbound: Main Cabin
    Return: C+

    Did NOT recline at all for outbound even if seat was 17C in Main Cabin and did NOT have to worry about person in row 16 reclining into my space as that’s a non-recline Exit row.

    Didn’t mind NOT reclining, and not having seat ahead reclining into my space made for a half-decent, and surprisingly tolerable Main Cabin experience overall – EXCEPT for person seated behind me who was using a notebook computer and was moving it around and/or pounding their keyboard so hard that I asked my partner to peek behind me to see if there was a kid behind me repeatedly kicking the seat it was recurring so frequently that it was becoming obnoxious.

    So, not sure if the person noticed the glare of my partner when he looked behind to see who was responsible for what originally seemed like a kid kicking the seat – but in fact was an adult furiously pounding their computer’s keyboard instead.

    But it quickly abated after he did that, and while still occasionally felt thereafter, for the most part wasn’t nearly as noticeable and unpleasant once they saw that someone in the row ahead of them was checking out why the seat I was in felt like a kid behind me was kicking it.

    Now, regarding the left rear lavatory on that Delta Airbus A320 (“OW” models):

    Are they freakin’ kidding?

    Yes, it was clean and well lit.

    But, come on – I’m all of 5’8” with W32 Levi’s jeans and I can barely fit inside that puny loo to pee.

    This is shameful, ridiculous and absurd.

    Period.

    As for the return flight on exact same A320 “OW” model on Delta, but this time in C+ 12F on the window.

    More legroom, which is always welcomed, but I guess the constant and very unpleasant kiddie kicking-like sensation for most of the first half of the outbound flight was made up for by having the seat behind me empty so I could recline to my heart’s content AND completely free from any other risk of someone pounding their computer keyboard incessantly in a manner that mimics a kiddie kicking the seat constantly, so that was nice.

    But, the recline of the C+ didn’t seem to be all that great even at the absolute maximum, and I’m NOT much of a fan for the seat pan that slides forward.

    So, bottom line is that the outbound flight without using the recline but for the relentless keyboard pounder behind me was fine.

    Didn’t need it – and didn’t miss it (the seat recline, that is)!

    As for the shameful, teeny-tiny loos on the return flight, I avoided that nastiness altogether by making a pit stop at the restroom directly across from the gate where my flight was departing from to better eliminate need inflight to hunch over and squeeze into those ridiculously small and preposterous lavatories.

    Both Delta AND Airbus should be ashamed of themselves for even pretending those preposterously small sized lavatories are even remotely acceptable for use.

    They’re every bit as pathetic and shameful as those encountered on United’s Boeing 737s.

    This is just another symptom of relentless greed run amok.

    Nothing more. Nothing less.

    Other than that, though, those Delta flights were very good.

    And as I flew hither and yon last year and achieved entry level (or lowly to some) “Silver Medallion” “status” for this year, I did find it to be a very nice touch when the flight attendant came around and handed my partner and myself hand-written “thank you” notes!

    It may be a very small, and to some I’m sure (especially jaded cynics) an insignificant thing in the bigger scheme of things.

    But still, and all the more so being seated in Main Cabin, I found that hand-written thank you note as a perfect example of the “little things” that matter and that speaks to why Delta is better than its other cartel club members like American and United in this era of oligopolies!

  17. @Gary I’m curious that you haven’t mentioned anything about Jet Airways. You wrote many stories about how DL “outmaneuvered” AA in getting them, but now have gone silent once they are about to go belly up? Does that not fit in your narrative of how anyone in charge at AA is clueless?

  18. except that A320 has full transcon range, so that’s easily like 6 hours of sitting on a park bench. thanks but no thanks. if i wanna self-torture with sleep deprivation there are cheaper ways than flying DL.

  19. I recently was on nrt-lax first class on ANA. Their first class lavs are smaller than what any us carrier has in their economy.

  20. Not very first class to reduce recline in first class. We just flew ATL-PHX yesterday in an A320 which is av4 hour flight. Not pleased if they make this change in a 4 hour flight. And, yes, I did recline yesterday and so did my wife.

  21. @Steve S. I am about 6’4″ and weight about 500 pounds. Didn’t you notice me sitting next to you on the plane? Well, I am not really the Mongolian Sumo wrestler Ichinojo who is fondly referred to as the Monster. But it is funny trying to think of him trying to sit in an economy seat. He would probably collapse the seat.

  22. @ Steve S. — The constant complaining is that coach sucks, even for a 10 minute flight. It’s kinda like a 1700s….. 🙂 I am betting you haven;t flown first very often, so you haven’t’ become jaded and spoiled like me. I also bet you are much younger than my not-so-old 50 years.

  23. Why don’t airlines copy the seats on the trains in Europe? The seat portion slides forward and the back remains stationary, so the only one losing any space is the person who chooses to slide the seat forward. So logical…

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