Why Is Delta Reducing Seat Recline On The Airbus A320?

Delta stands apart from American and United Airlines right now when it comes to operational efficiency.  Generally speaking, their planes arrive on time more frequently than their competitors.  They seem to do a better job with the small details as well.  While I frequently hear some of my fellow travel bloggers complain about not being able to get a pre-departure beverage when they sit in first class on American or United, Delta has a bottle of water waiting for you (and they’ll take your drink order prior to take-off).  That’s why this most recent move puzzles me a bit.

Scott Mayerowitz reported recently that Delta Air Lines is reducing the seat recline in economy class on their Airbus A320 from 4 inches to 2 inches.  First Class sees a similar reduction, from 5.5 inches to 3.5 inches.  

Delta claims they believe this will increase passenger comfort.  In a way, they’re right.  With seats so close together, someone choosing to recline 4 inches into your personal space could mean a broken laptop screen for you.  I’ve been pretty close to having that happen on a number of occasions.

But, the logic is a bit flawed.  Let’s just say you took your car to your local repair shop.  When you gave the car to the repair shop, it had 4 working tires.  Upon returning to pick up your car, you notice that the repair shop has put your small spare tire on in place of one of your full-size tires.  You know the ones I’m talking about, where you’re not supposed to drive over 35 mph.  

When you point this out to the mechanic, they apologize and tell you they lost one of your tires, which is why they put the spare on.  They offer to take the car back and fix it.  You wait a while, and then the mechanic pulls your car back out of the garage.  However, the small spare tire is still on.  You ask him why.  He says, “Well, you can’t drive the car over 35 mph with that spare tire on. So, I rigged your transmission so it won’t shift out of 3rd gear.  Problem solved!”


Maybe you’re rolling your eyes now, but it’s obviously the repair shop’s fault.  Just like the repair shop, Delta caused the current problem.  They, along with their competitors, put more seats on airplanes.  In turn, that made it harder to get in and out of rows.  It also caused that seat in front of you to encroach much further into your personal space.  Their solution is to take away some of the recline you used to get in an effort to keep you from getting mad at the guy or gal in front of you who chooses to (gasp!) recline their seat.

The article also quotes an industry consultant who says that less recline will make it easier for window and middle seat passengers to get out and use the lavatory.  That strikes me as saying that it’s easier to get 17 pounds of…..stuff into a 5 pound bad than it is to get 20 pounds into that 5 pound bag.  No doubt, it’s easier.  But, both are beyond messy.

Scott astutely points out that Spirit Airlines flies the same size planes with quite a few more seats by not allowing for recline and squeezing seats closer together.  Frontier does the same thing.  The unfortunate part of changes like this decision to reduce seat recline is that it’s that much less difference between Delta and true low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier.  

The Final Two Pennies

Still, it’s important to consider the entire picture when looking at a change like this. American Airlines reduced the space between rows of seats on some airplanes to level that were essentially the same as some low-cost carriers, and definitely less than Delta. A couple of inches of seat recline does not eliminate all the other benefits Delta has over a low-cost carrier (such as an actual first class cabin).

However, saying this change is about more personal space just strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  Delta has not increased the amount of personal space on its A320 aircraft.  Sure, the seat in front of you won’t come quite as close to your nose as it used to (2 inches less, in fact).  However, your own seat will recline an equal amount less as well.  You might be able to argue that increases comfort.  I’d disagree.  But, I think we can both agree you and I won’t have more space in coach the next time we fly a Delta A320.

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  1. I view it more as not imposing on someone else’s space, and think it’s a wonderful move. Then again, I’m 6’5″ and have suffered many a bruised knee on flights before, particularly as the airlines have crammed in more seats over the years.
    I do have a super simple solution to this mess: have an absolutely true to life evacuation from the planes. With people packed in, it will take extra time to exit the plane, and then there’s the multitude of people who will absolutely insist on opening the overhead compartment to remove their carry on bags or grabbing their bag from under the seat in front of them. This realistic test will show that the number of seats on a plane needs to be vastly reduced for safety purposes. An ancillary benefit will be a huge increase in leg room, so people can recline if they like without causing physical pain or property damage to the person behind them.

  2. I fly exclusively first class. Still people reclining their seats irks me. I’m a believer in recline if you are going to sleep. Otherwise, just sit up. Have some consideration for your fellow passengers.

  3. I don’t always love what Delta does (as the leader of the Big 3 carriers), but I do have grudging respect for the logic which they apply to their decisions. This is another case. A little bit of seat recline is fine if someone really needs it, but a deep recline that impinges on the passenger behind you is not cool… at all.

    So given that airline seat pitch(es) have been reduced to where they are now, the decision to limit seat recline is the best (least worst) and logical outcome of that reality.

  4. Hmm. WHY is Delta doing this? The simple answer is: because they can. They can spin it any way they like, but it boils down to greed. As a 5’2″ old lady with a 24″ inseam (yes, that is correct) I have yet to meet the seat that does not allow me enough leg room in car, train or plane. But I’m also old enough to remember when flying somewhere was a treat. Now, for me it is a penance. I feel very sorry for guys and gals like Christian and I agree with him about an evacuation drill. The greed of the airlines is creating a serious safety threat. One airline defying the greed model might start some competition. I don’t know the airline business well enough to know if that sort of change is even possible or if it would prompt a sea change. I do know that I only fly now if I have to and I never look forward to any part of it.

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