The Great Knee Defender Controversy

There are some issues on which everyone thinks they’re an expert. This explains why today’s New York Times article in defense of the Knee Defender has a couple hundred comments so far.

The Knee Defender was invented by a guy who was tired of people in front of him reclining their airline seats so far back that they made uncomfortable contact with his knees. You attach the thing to the tray table and it stops the seat in front of you from reclining. This made the news recently when a one passenger (a man, presumably tall) used the Knee Defender and another passenger (a woman, presumably not so tall) retaliated with a cup of water. The flight was diverted and both passengers were kicked off the plane.

Speaking as someone who is taller than average and has avoided coach only two or three times in his life, I can understand the motivation behind the Knee Defender. It’s bad enough with the limited legroom in coach without the person in front of you reducing your space even more. I’d never use the Knee Defender, however, because a more civilized approach is to communicate one’s discomfort to the reclining passenger in front of you, hoping thereby to evoke a sympathetic response. Also, life is too short.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t run an airline, I can also understand the motivation behind cramming as many passengers as possible into an airplane. There is efficiency (mostly $$$) at stake.

Nevertheless, if airlines are going to limit legroom, they need to limit how far back seats can recline. Otherwise they’re inviting conflict between their customers. Seats that can recline way back are an obsolete technology from a time when flying was one of those enjoyable experiences relatively few people ever had.

Of course, the airlines could simply rely on the common sense and common decency of their passengers. There are people who ask the person behind them if their reclined seat is causing a problem. There are other people who tell the person in front of them in a nice way that their reclined seat is too far back. People do these things.

But then there are other people who shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Many who responded to the Times article argued that they have a right to recline their seats as far back as they will go. If they’ve paid good money for a seat that can recline 30 degrees, they are damn well entitled to recline their seats 30 degrees, no matter what effect it has on the person sitting behind them. In effect, people (some of whom used their real names) made this claim: If an airline has given me the ability to do X, I have the right to do X.

Of course, most of us understand that “can” does not imply “should”. Airlines make it possible for passengers to throw water on other passengers, but passengers shouldn’t do that. Airlines also make it possible for their customers to lock restroom doors and occupy those rooms for hours at a time, but their customers shouldn’t do that either.

To be fair, the Times article these readers were responding to was a defense of the Knee Defender. So maybe they got carried away and went overboard when they wrote their unthinking responses. It’s clear, however, that although everyone may think they’re an expert on a topic like this, that isn’t really true.

6 thoughts on “The Great Knee Defender Controversy

  1. Hmmm. I sometimes recline my seat slightly because sitting completely upright can give me a backache. I only incline more than slightly when the person in front of me inclines and I end up needing the space. It never even occurred to me that someone’s knees might stick out far enough to be affected.

    I hate flying.

    • Flying coach is one of the few times having long legs is a disadvantage. One strategy I’ve adopted is to avoid long non-stop flights when I can. Flights with connections take longer, of course, but they’re cheaper and break up the painful airborne experience into smaller chunks.

      But we should all keep in mind what Louis CK points out: you’re sitting in a chair six miles up in the sky moving at 600 miles per hour eating cheese and crackers and you’re complaining???

      • That Louis CK is hilarious. Yes, very funny. Ha ha. But if I can’t complain about flying coach because it’s better than life 100 years ago, then I can’t complain about any aspect of life that is an improvement over caveman life, and I hereby complain that that viewpoint is no fun at all.

        • Excellent point. And Louis CK flies in first class now (although maybe he didn’t when he wrote that joke, which I’m sure I didn’t quote very accurately).

  2. I have been numerous flights where the person in front of me reclined there seat so far back that I couldn’t even get out of the seat to use the bathroom or to put my tray table down to eat the pitiful meal BA provided. I fly a lot and I try to be courteous and if I do recline the seat (if I am in coach) I never recline fully – just a little bit.

    I was on a packed flight from Cairo to London and there was an older gentleman across the ailse from me. The woman in front of him did recline her seat so far that she was literally lying in the man’s lap. He got really angry and started hitting her seat. She gets up and starts yelling at him that it is her right to recline the seat. Well just because the seat will recline doesn’t mean you should be oblivious to other passengers comfort. I have been flying for business more than 20 years and flying has become a miserable experience – even in business or first class!

    • We can hope that this recent burst of publicity will make people understand that reclining your seat all the way back can create a problem for the person behind you. It’s not one of the major problems in the world today, but it would be nice if it were even less of a problem.

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