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Christopher Muther

In defense of the Knee Defender

AP Photo/Nick Ut, File

A fight over just a few additional inches of extra legroom on United Airlines flight 1462 quickly made headlines around the globe yesterday, primarily because we’ve all been shoe-horned into those unbearably narrow seats for hours at a time and we can relate to the desperate need for more space. The kerfuffle, as told to the Associated Press, occurred when an unnamed man and woman began fighting when she was unable to recline her seat.

She was blocked from reclining because the man sitting behind her used a product called Knee Defender. It’s a $21.95 lock that attaches to a tray table preventing the seat in front of you from reclining. A flight attendant asked the man to remove the device. He refused. The woman stood up and tossed a glass of water in his face.

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As a result of the fight, the flight from Newark to Denver landed in Chicago. The two offending parties were booted from the plane in Chicago and were spoken to by the Chicago Police and TSA. There were no arrests.

My reaction upon reading the story was not anger toward the man preventing the recline, it was “How come I’ve never heard of a Knee Defender, and where can I get one?” I’m not the only one. After the story made national news, the gadget’s website crashed. The Knee Defender is made up of two wedges with rubber grips that attach to the seat tray. Once it’s in place, the person in front of you cannot recline.

The Defender even comes with a courtesy card for your fellow blocked passenger which reads: “I realize that this may be an inconvenience. If so, I hope you will complain to the airline. Maybe working together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers.”

I can relate to the gentleman who locked the tray table. I can’t count the number of flights when I’ve taken out my laptop to start working when, without warning, the seat in front of me drops back, my tray table makes a beeline for my abdomen, and the laptop screen is shoved closed like an angry clam. This effectively ends any productivity on an airplane, and my fate has been decided by the passenger sitting in front of me. I’m reduced to playing Candy Crush on my iPad for the remainder of the flight.

I’m not a hypocrite. I have a strict policy of not reclining my own seat when I’m on a plane. Because I dislike having a seat inches from my face, I assume the person behind me feels the same way. We all have such limited space that I have no intention of making someone’s flight unpleasant. I’m only 5’8. I weigh a scant 140, and I still don’t have enough room. What about the poor 6-foot-1, 200-pound man sitting behind me? It must be unbearable. If I do recline, it’s likely less than an inch.

I recline on a red-eye when the lights are out and most are sleeping, but other than that my seat is in the upright position. If I do recline during a daytime flight, I turn around and ask the person behind me if they mind. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the same question.

This is not a diatribe against people who recline their seats. This is a defense of the Knee Defender. I’m not vilifying the woman who threw the glass of water. We all know this is a matter of airline economics.

“If the airlines will not protect people from being battered, crunched, and immobilized — very real problems according to health care professionals, medical studies, government agencies, and even some airlines — then people need options to protect themselves,” says the Knee Defender’s website.

The lesson here, if there is one, is to simply be more aware of your fellow passengers. Show respect and show courtesy. Don’t kick the seat in front of you or push your feet against it. If a fellow passenger asks you to take off your Knee Defender, remove it. Before you throw your seat back with abandon, remember there’s a human back there. We’re all stressed and in the same cattle pen. There’s no need to make it more unpleasant than it already is.

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther
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