The Knee Defender, a device marketed to airline passengers fed up with fellow fliers who hog their legroom by reclining, has been around for more than 10 years.
But the low-tech gadget appears to have registered a first yesterday morning, when United Airlines diverted a Newark-to-Denver flight to Chicago after a knee defender and his target got into a physical altercation.
According to law enforcement officials in Chicago, the in-flight fight erupted in Economy Plus (read: four inches of extra legroom), when a male passenger in a middle seat of row 12 used a Knee Defender to stop a woman in front of him from reclining while he was using his laptop. A flight attendant asked him to remove the device and he refused. The woman in row 11 threw a cup of water at him, at which point United decided to have Flight 1462 land in Chicago, where police temporarily detained the two combatants.
“We absolutely do not allow any devices onboard that prevent seats from reclining,” United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart tells the Voice. But Hobart was unable to confirm whether the prohibition is spelled out in any literature that might be accessible to a passenger. (This also seems to be the case with most airlines.)
When contacted by the Voice, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Alison Duquette took evasive action. “While the product does not violate any FAA regulations, it is up to individual airlines to prohibit it,” she says. We expect passengers to comply with airline policies and directions given by the flight and cabin crew.”
Adds Duquette: “The FAA discourages the use of any device that alters the performance of any part of an airplane.”
Hmmm. Translation seems to be: As long as you don’t use this baby during takeoff and landing, the FAA wants no part of your tiff.
On its website, Knee Defender manufacturer Gadget Duck claims the device (slogan: “Standing up for the right of the tall guy to sit down”) “helps you stop reclining seats on airplanes so your knees won’t have to.” Invented by Ira Goldman, a six-foot-three resident of Washington, D.C., the Defender consists of two small, identical pieces of plastic that the user slots over the metal arms that hold his or her tray table. Wedged between the support and the seatback, the device prevents the latter from budging. Its small size, discreet placement, and neutral (gray) color decrease the likelihood that cabin crew members or surrounding passengers will spot the Knee Defender, thus increasing the likelihood that the would-be recliner will think his or her seat is faulty.
Since Goldman began marketing the Knee Defender in 2003 (current price: $21.95), his invention and its thorny ethical complications have been a topic of debate on flier forums worldwide.
“I’ve been a satisfied user of Knee Defenders for about 3 years now. Flying has been a completely different experience for me since using this gadget. The person in front usually doesn’t know what’s going on; he will jiggle the seat a couple of times and then assume the seat is broken and give up….”
“I have, and will continue to do so, prevented the person in front of me from reclining by jamming my knee into seat until they give up in frustration or call the attendant on me. I then explain that I have no room already and will not allow the other person to make me even more uncomfortable.”
“I know a FA who tells people who have used them that she will have LEO meet the flight upon arrival for tampering with on-board equipment and altering airline property!”
“If you want the space back then recline yours. Otherwise, find an airline that doesn’t have reclining seats, walk or get the bus. You don’t HAVE to fly. People who want to take advantage of the options of their seat are free to do so. Your ticket does NOT rent the space around you. It gives you the right to sit in a certain seat. Any whining about people moving their seats back is just childish.”
“[O]ut of a courtesy to the person behind me I typically don’t recline my seat all the way, and when I do recline it I do it slowly to avoid hitting a laptop or whatnot. That being said, the person behind me better not attempt to prevent me from doing so because: 1) I’m pretty sure I can snap those little plastic clips if I push back hard enough and 2) if I can’t break them, I can fart the motherf****** alphabet until they remove them….”
Reached for comment by USA Today, Goldman pointed out that “the Knee Defender says right on it: ‘Be courteous. Do not hog space. Listen to the flight crew,'” adding, “Apparently that is not what happened here.”