Ed Bastian has been the CEO of Delta Air Lines since 2016, and he's rarely been afraid to take bold stances on controversial issues.

  • For example, it was Bastian and Delta that jumped into a dispute with the NRA in 2018--canceling NRA discounts in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Florida.
  • It was Bastian who skipped a meeting on behalf of Delta with President Trump last year, and earned the president's scorn, apparently, in order to go on vacation with his family.   
  • And it was Bastian who went on CNBC's Squak Box Friday, in part to talk about Delta's plans to go carbon neutral starting next month, putting the airline right at the front of the climate change debate.

But the other position Bastian announced Friday--something he didn't appear to be planning to talk about--might turn out to be the most controversial, for some airline passengers.

If you're a frequent business traveler, you're certain to have a strong opinion. In short, Bastian stepped right up to the third rail of passenger experience, which is the question of whose rights are more important: 

  • Passengers who want to right to recline their seats during flight, or
  • The passengers behind them, into whose personal space the reclining passengers might be intruding.

This comes in the wake of a viral Twitter video of an American Eagle passenger punching the seat of a woman passenger ahead of him, in apparent retaliation for reclining her seat.

Both the reclining passenger and the puncher have their vehement defenders. But even though Bastian is the CEO of American's rival Delta, the CNBC hosts would not let him off without addressing the controversy. He started out very directly:

"I think customers have the right to recline," Bastian said, adding later: "But I think that the proper thing to do is, if you're going to recline into somebody that you ask if it's OK first. And then you do it."

Pro- and anti-reclining factions on social media seized on different parts of Bastian's statement. Others said the airlines themselves are to blame for trying to pack so many people into coach.

(My colleague Jason Aten perceived Bastian's remarks as trying to have it both ways.)

I'll include the video of his comments at the bottom of this post, but I think it's pretty clear which side he comes down on: basically try to be polite and civil, but overall, the reclining passenger wins.

Bastian, by the way, is 6 feet 3 inches tall, and he often rides in coach on Delta. So, by giving a green light to reclining, he's potentially making things a little less comfortable for himself someday on a flight.

Regardless, his attitude is a lot more congenial than the punching passenger in the video that went viral. 

More than one commenter has pointed out that the punching passenger seems pretty tough when he's bashing the seat of a fairly unimposing woman, and wondered if he would have been so aggressive if it had been a male passenger his own size who was reclining.

I reached out to both Delta Air Lines and American Airlines to ask if they had any comment--or more important, any official policy on whether passengers should recline their seats.

"There is no 'policy' on seat recline," at Delta, a spokesman emailed me, adding: "I'll let the CEOs comments stand on their own, but I will also note that it all opened up with him asking passengers to show respect for one another."

American Airlines didn't address whether there's any policy on seat reclines, instead saying:

"We are aware of a customer dispute that transpired on American Eagle flight 4392, operated by Republic Airways on January 31. The safety and comfort of our customers and team members is our top priority, and our team is looking into the issue."

Frequent business travelers, let us know your thoughts in the comments. Here's the video of Bastian's remarks. 

Published on: Feb 15, 2020
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.