Photo credit: Wikimedia.
This post was taken from our new book, Mine !: How the hidden rules of property control our lives, available March 2nd. To learn more about the book, visit minethebook.com.
Yesterday, in Part 1, we introduced the Knee Defender and the three contradicting stories of possession – attachment, possession, and first-in-time – that passengers use inches of personal space in height battles.
Why are these conflicts breaking out now? There was never anger about lying down. Until recently, airline seats had a greater incline or space between seats – enough to sit back and lower the tray table. Nobody thought of asking who was in control of the room because it didn’t matter much. But airlines have shrunk the playing field in economy class from 35 “not long ago to just 28” on some planes.
There is a lot at stake for the airlines: one inch space per row can result in up to six additional seats per flight to be sold. In order to increase profits, airlines are squeezing more and more passengers into a solid steel tube – at the same time, people are getting bigger and tray tables are becoming valuable computer stands. There is also a lot at stake for the passengers. In the COVID-19 era, every inch of personal space can feel like a matter of life or death. So the passengers get angry with each other. But why aren’t they mad at the airline?
It turns out that neither Beach nor Williams really own the wedge of lounging space. The airlines do it. And they are accomplished professionals in property design. Ira Goldman, the inventor of the Knee Defender (whose website traffic increased 100 times after the Denver plane crash), said, “The airlines sell me space for my legs, and they ‘they sell you the space – if you’re in front of me sit – sell you the same reclining room. So sell one room to two people. “
Can the airlines do that?
Yes. In 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration rejected the regulation of airplane seats, leaving their design to the airlines. In return, the airlines use a secret weapon that allows them to sell the same seat twice on each flight. The weapon is strategic ambiguity, a sophisticated tool for owner design. Most airlines have one rule: the passenger with the button can lean back. But they keep it quiet. Flight attendants do not announce it.
Ambiguity works to the advantage of the airlines. When ownership is unclear – and it is far more unclear than you can imagine – people tend to resort to courtesy and good manners. For decades, airlines have relied on high altitude etiquette to defuse conflicting claims. That’s why Delta CEO Bastian said you should “ask if it’s okay” to sit back and relax. Passengers negotiate with one another as they lean forward in a line, pushing their elbows over shared armrests, and pushing for overhead containers. Money rarely changes hands. (However, one study suggests that around three-quarters of passengers would agree not to sit back if the person behind offered to buy them a drink or snack.)
But as airlines keep shrinking the playing field, unspoken rules for pushing front-to-back break down and everyone looks unreasonable. Goldman saw ownership ambiguity as a business opportunity and came up with a technological solution. The problem, however, is that a unilateral attempt to lock the seat violates politeness. It feels like taking something without asking.
The knee defender may seem like a silly novelty, but it reflects one of the great engines of innovation in our society: as cherished resources become scarcer, people compete more intensely to enforce their preferred property rule, and entrepreneurs find ways to capitalize on them.
In Post 3 tomorrow we’ll show how the Knee Defender story explains everything from colonizing the West a century ago to fighting today over who owns our online data.