Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Forget the Knee Defender, I want an Armrest Defender. (Are you listening, Ira Goldman?)

I am one of those folks who can sleep in an airplane seat without having to recline. Oh, sometimes I’ll go back a smidge, but mostly I keep my seat in what to some is the evil and unlivable upright position.

I am also one of those folks who has, on occasion, pushed my knees up against the back of the seat in front of me to prevent the passenger from slamming shut my laptop and scrunching up my food tray as he aggressively attempts to recline his head into my lap.

Honestly, you’d think before they went into full recline mode, recline moders would have the courtesy to look behind them and ask if it’s okay, or at least give the person a head’s up that, in a second, they’ll be going head’s down.

Seriously, haven’t the recliners ever had the experience of someone whoomphing into their space and messing things up?

Personally, I’d be just as happy if they did away with reclining seats altogether. Or allowed folks to recline only on overnight flights when the cabin lights are dimmed. Then at least people would know that, when the crew decides it’s time for passengers to go nighty-night, it’s okay to lean back and “enjoy.”

The topic’s come up, of course, because of a couple of recent incidents in which reclining Hatfields took on upright McCoys.

A week or so ago, a flight from Newark to Denver ended up taking a time out at O’Hare after two passengers had at it.

During the flight, a man seated in the Economy Plus section, which offers four more inches of legroom than other coach seats, was reportedly using a $21.95 gadget called a Knee Defender to prevent the woman seated in front of him from reclining her seat.

While the Federal Aviation Administration does not prohibit the use of the Knee Defender, like most other major U.S. airlines, "we do not allow customers to use devices that prevent seats from reclining," said United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart via e-mail.

But the male passenger refused to remove the device when asked to do so by the flight attendant.

The woman whose seat could not recline stood up and threw a cup of water at the Knee Defender user, a law enforcement official told AP, and soon after United made the decision to land the plane in Chicago.

"Authorities met the aircraft, removed the two passengers and the flight continued to Denver shortly afterwards," said Hobart. (Source: USA Today.)

A few days later, there was another incident, this time on a flight between Miami and Paris. Not clear whether there was Knee Defender involved in this one, but apparently a passenger objected to the sharp recline of the person in front of him. Somehow, he ended up in some sort of contretemps with a flight attendant, with a couple of air marshals jumping in for good measure. That flight was diverted to Boston, where the passenger – who apparently doesn’t speak any English – found himself arrested. (Bonne chance, mon ami!)

The Knee Defender is one of those gadgets that doesn’t seem to be an unalloyed joy for anyone, other than its inventor.

I saw Ira Goldman on the news somewhere along the line, and he’s a very mild-mannered guy who believes that those using the Knee Defender should inform the person in front of them that they are doing so. He even has little cards printed up if you don’t want to use your words.

But how does this work in the real world?

Let me play through a couple of scenarios here.

You let the person in front of you know that you’ll be using the Knee Defender, and their response is either a) don’t bother me/what are you talking about/you’re nuts; or b) like hell you are; it’s my airline-given right to throw my head back at you any old time I choose. (Informee then presses the button for the flight attendant. Contretemps ensues.)

How is this any better than just tapping the person in front of you on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to be working. Would you mind not reclining for a while. And when you want to push back, could you just let me know?’

Sure, this approach could always provoke response “b”. Still…

Then there’s the scenario in which someone has deployed the Knee Defender, but hasn’t told the passenger in front.

When that person tries to recline, it’s almost a guarantee that they’re going to be annoyed. Maybe not throw water in your face annoyed. But annoyed.

When this happens, your options are to say, “Oh, I just use this so I get some advance warning. Let me just finish up what I’m doing and put my laptop away.” Or to say, “Screw you.”

If you take option one, at least your laptop won’t be slammed shut, nor your plastic cup of ginger ale get crushed. So that’s not a bad outcome.

But if you choose the “Screw you” option, a melee may occur, the flight get diverted, and you find yourself escorted off and/or arrested.


There is another scenario. You deploy the Knee Defender, but I’m in the seat in front of you, and I’m not going to recline, anyway. You don’t know this, of course, but you do get peace of mind throughout your flight, and there’s no danger of confrontation.

I guess that sometimes you find products in search of a problem, and sometimes you find products that, in and of themselves, become the problem.

But I do have a product idea for Ira Goldman: armrest dividers that can be put in place to insure the passenger that, in a two-by-two situation, they get half of the available space; and in a three-across situation, that the person stuck in the middle gets 2/3’s of the space for the seat rests on either side of her. Thus, everyone in that three-across row will have access to  one-and-a-third worth of armrest, which seems astoundingly fair to me. Works for the heinous five-across, too!

An alternative to this would be a timer that would divide the flight time by the number of folks in the row and figure out how much full-time use of the shared armrests each passenger would be allotted.

Hey, Ira Goldman, are you listening?

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