Thursday, August 28, 2014
Above is a controversial product for use on airplanes. It was designed by a tall man who traveled frequently. Once clipped onto the sides of an open tray table, the two elements prevent the person ahead of you from reclining the seat back.
I say controversial because, recently, there was a controversy. It's a funny story.
On a United flight from Newark to Denver, a woman decided to recline her seat. She was frustrated in this effort because the man behind her had clipped a pair of Knee Defenders into the tray table behind her seat.
The woman called a flight attendant and complained. The flight attendant told the man to remove the Knee Defenders. He refused. The woman retaliated by throwing a glass of water in the man's face.
The pilot was notified. The jet was diverted to Chicago, and the woman and man were told to leave the plane. After they got off, the flight continued to its original destination.
What Happened Next
This event, reported broadly, brought to the boil a discussion that always simmers just beneath the surface for air travelers.
-- The Knee Defender inventor reported a 500 percent increase in orders for his product ($21.95 + S&H from his site, $59.95 + S&H from Amazon) after the contretemps on the United jet.
-- A commenter in today's New York Times took the side of the aggrieved seat recliner. The title of his piece -- "Don't Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me" explained the theme. Within hours, more than 2,300 comments had been filed. Most seemed to incline to the position that the columnist (who suggested in a similar column in 2011 that he would be willing to accept a payment of $75 not to recline his seat) was, in current parlance, a real dick.
What to Do
The Knee Defender debuted in 2003. Every time it is mentioned in the press, sales spike. Some airlines have banned it. Flight attendants don't want to deal with it or to mediate arguments between passengers who like to tip their seats back and the people who sit behind them.
The seat reclining people have their points.
-- Airline seats are designed to recline, therefore they can do it.
-- They suffer from injuries or ailments that make sitting up straight uncomfortable.
The people who sit behind them also have some points.
-- It is difficult to view a seat back screen, work on a laptop, read a newspaper, eat food
or drink a beverage when the back of a forward seat is within inches of one's face.
-- People with long legs have no place to put their knees when seat backs are lowered.
Everybody seems to blame the airlines for shoehorning people into ever smaller and more closely spaced seats. But people shop carefully for airline tickets, looking for the lowest possible price, and airlines have responded with cattle-car arrangements. No market has surfaced for slightly larger seats and spacing that cost slightly more. (Most travelers in business or first-class seats are wealthy, traveling on expense accounts or using upgrades based on frequent-flier miles; they are a small portion of the flying population.)
Apparently, some airlines have seats that slide forward when seat backs are lowered. This sounds good to me, but I am not aware of any U.S. carrier whose planes have such seats.
One nice idea is that travelers should speak with each other. Those who want to recline should ask passengers behind them whether that would annoy them, and passengers who would feel inconvenienced by a having a forward seat reclined should explain their preferences.
This is impossible, of course. By the time passengers have stood in TSA lines, emptied bags and disrobed for TSA inspections, waited for long periods to get cups of mediocre coffee at the airport Starbucks and then been herded slowly aboard airplanes, they pretty well have had it. They have no more energy left. Speaking politely with strangers who disagree with them is asking more of them than they can muster.
It is an unsolvable muddle.
Note: Knee Defender may not be the only way to frustrate people who like to recline in your face.
Several years ago a blog called Lifehacker featured an article about a flier who had found that wedging a water bottle (purchased after clearing TSA, of course) wedged into between a tray table and a seat back accomplished the same objective. A picture is below.
In comments following the post, a reader reported similar success wedging a rubber door stop somewhere in the back of a forward seat.
Frustrated people can be inventive in their tactics and devices.