Americans: “Rob me, abuse me, just don’t squish me!”

It’s quite striking. Throughout the media and all over the blabbosphere, a gizmo that’s been around for more than ten years is suddenly causing people to fly into a rage. 

It’s called the Knee Defender. It prevents the person in front of you from reclining his seat so far back that his head is practically in your lap.

I know you’ve been hearing the stories about this lately. How could you not? It’s all over the news.

“To recline or not to recline” is the question du jour. People are flying into fits of apoplexy in chat rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and on airplanes themselves, where several passengers have gotten into fights, precipitating changes of course and unscheduled plane landings.

Fair disclosure: I have the original version, which I bought when it first came on the market 11 years ago. It’s changed slightly since then, but the purpose and effect are the same. I used mine only once, lo those many years ago, when I was still flying coach (I stopped flying coach in 2004, and since 2010 I’ve stopped flying in/from this country completely). The Knee Defender did the trick. It didn’t prevent the girl in front of me from reclining a little, it just prevented her from taking up my seat along with hers.

My husband, sitting next to me, used it briefly; the guy in front of him shoved his seat back so hard that he sheared the tray table off. In other words, he damaged the seat, thus rendering it unusable, as the flight attendant informed me when I handed him the destroyed tray table as I disembarked. He said he wished I’d told him sooner so he could’ve charged the guy who did it.

At that time the Knee Defender was completely legal, allowable, not against airline regulations. No idea what the deal is now, since airlines around the world are apparently scrambling to come up with policies on it.

In all the arguing about this, there’s a hefty amount of pot calling kettle black. “You’re inconsiderate!” “No, you’re inconsiderate!” Etc. (Since, in all my years of flying, I never, ever reclined my seat all the way back into the person behind me, considering it incredibly rude, I have no sympathy for those who do. Whatever. That’s not the point of this post.)

Regardless, the point is that this little gadget is causing more consternation than all the abuse the TSA dishes out. Passengers care more about how much room they have on the plane than they do about the fact that they get bullied, robbed, and assaulted before they get on that plane.

This isn’t a novel observation. We’ve discussed before how people are willing to put up with anything, including allowing their children to be abused, to get on a plane. Especially if they can save a few bucks, there’s no limit to what they’re willing to put up with; that’s, in fact, the tenor of much of the Knee Defender discussion — the money required to buy a seat with more room. Flyers are more concerned with their “right” to recline than they are with their right not to have their genitalia pawed by a uniformed clerk. (And for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, don’t touch their cars!)

What, I wonder, can one conclude from all this about so-called American values?

  • Person on Disability

    As a person on disability and who has had significant spinal cord damage, difficulty walking, and ongoing back and neck chronic pain, the people who are healthy have no idea what the situation is for people with disabilities.

    When you are healthy, you do not realize how difficult it is to move and how difficult it is to sit in the coach class aircraft seat.

    The problem is that there are no minimum standards for the size of the seat, the ergonomics of the seat, and curve of the seat back.

    For quite a while, the UAL seats were curved in the wrong direction with no lumbar support.

    I have to agree with the columnist in that I have largely stopped flying since 2009. I used to fly every 10-12 weeks on a sizable trip. Now, I have not flown on a trip in a year and that was the only flight for the past 2 years.

    Regarding reclining in a seat, it is a MUST that recline the seat. If I do not recline, my legs and lower body literally go numb and I have a hard time walking. These symptoms relate to spinal cord and pinching of nerves in the spinal cord or back. These symptoms and signs are directly related to the poor ergonomic design of the passenger seats used in an airline.

    On a flight about four years ago, I had a guy hit the back of my wife’s chair and prevent her from reclining her seat. I changed seats and reclined the seat, which he then hit the back of my chair. I then told him to stop hitting the back of my chair or I would hit him in the head the same way. We nearly started a fight on the long five hour flight. He gave me the same excuse about not wanting to recline his seat. I see no reason for the person to refuse to tilt their own seat back.

    The fact that the airlines put seats this close together says something about the carrier and the reasonable space required for any passenger.

    Therefore, I have no tolerance for either the “knee defender” or of a person behind me limiting the recline on the seat.

    The person in front of me can recline their seat. Therefore, I should be able to recline mine.

    If you want to fly on an airline that does not recline their seats, do so. But, you do not have the right to limit the operation of the passenger seat of another party. You only have control on your own seat.

  • Daisiemae

    No passenger has the right to interfere with the operation of a seat for which they have not paid.

  • litbrit

    Lots of blame to go around here. Ultimately, this is on the airlines, who are going along with the TSA abuse that primes people’s anxious, irritable moods in the first place, and then expect to be able to cram people in to these inhumane, uncomfortable environments and not have the too-many-rats-in-a-cage syndrome kick in. I think many people *are* incensed about the abuse at the airport pre-boarding, but once it’s over, they focus on the longer-lasting abuse of being shoehorned into hard, badly-designed seats with virtually no space around them, and having to take it for hours on end with no escape.

    That said, it’s also on the flying public, for two reasons: 1) the low price über alles attitude that led to airlines stripping away every last centimeter of personal space and start nickel-and-diming everyone such that everyone now hauls massive amounts of carryons and smelly fried food on board in order to avoid yet more fees. And 2) the arrogant assumption people have that they can set up an office in front of them in basic Coach. A significant number of complainers are people who want to use their laptop throughout a flight and not recline their own seats–hey, if you want workspace in addition to a seat that takes you from Point A to Point B, pay for Economy Plus or Business Class.

    Back when I flew, and when I fly again, I was/am all for paying extra for those Economy Plus seats if they’re available (but they aren’t always). I think using discretion and being reasonable is the key here, i.e. not going all the way back, and not during meals, if there are any (HA!). Sneaky maneuvers like altering the airplane’s property so it doesn’t work properly and, God forbid, handing out the Knee Defender’s pre-printed cards explaining what you’ve done to someone’s seat that now won’t recline, are rather passive-aggressive actions.

  • RonBonner

    I may be in the minority but believe I should be able to use all of the features of an airline seat that I have paid for. I also realize how limited space is in steerage so I use descretion when reclining and limit how far back I recline. This may seem self centered but the seat pitch of the typical coach seat is darn uncomfortable and having gone through two back surgeries in less than a year I’m going to stand up for my comfort.

    • “Discretion” and “limit” would be the key words here. And most passengers use neither. Reclining all the way back practically into someone’s lap is the norm. And again, want more room? Buy a bigger seat.

      • RonBonner

        Not all of us are in a position to fly first class or cringe at paying 4 or 5 times or more for that big seat. I have flown twice this year and both trips were award flights, no first class for that. On those flights I don’t recall seeing anyone reclined fully.

        • Our reward flight from the UK to the US in June was in First Class. Cost us 12 bucks each, so I guess it wasn’t technically free.

          • RonBonner

            What’s the secret? I have never seen First Class award flights on AA. Perhaps one must have status first.

          • Well, it was with British Airways. I use a BA credit card. I don’t use it to goose miles or anything; I just use it as I normally would use a credit card, and those miles pile up without my even noticing. So when it’s time to fly back to the US (after we’ve taken the QM2 over), I just call up and say I want to fly anywhere but in coach, how many miles do I have, do I have enough to upgrade, if so great, if not how much extra do I have to pay, etc?

            In BA they have what they used to call World Traveller Plus, don’t know what it’s called now, but I’m perfectly happy to sit there, cause it’s way more roomy than coach though nothing like Biz or 1st Class. Last year that’s what we bought, then found ourselves bumped into First for no discernible reason. This year, because we were flying later, in June, I was barely able to get a seat at all, let alone anywhere outside coach. I was afraid I was going to have to cancel the trip. But at the last minute, the BA agent found exactly 2 seats left, both in 1st Class. I gulped and asked how much. He did the calculations, and bingo!

            But even if he had said it was going to be $500 each, that would’ve been fine with us. $500 to fly 1st Class across the ocean, including enjoying the unbelievably glamorous 1st C lounge at Heathrow, to be well fed, well quaffed, well rested, and not squashed into sardine class, is more than worth it to us.

            Again, everyone has to make these decisions for him/herself. Our priorities are all different. And we’re not going abroad at all next year because we can’t afford it.

          • RonBonner

            Was UK security substantially different than TSA security?

    • litbrit

      You’re not in the minority. I have a broken back–and lifelong back pain–thanks to a car accident years ago (rear-ended so hard, it buckled the frame of a heavy German car, totaling it). Sitting bolt-upright for more than a short period of time is unbearable.

      • Daisiemae

        There’s no way,that people can sit bolt upright like that. It goes against all body mechanics. With my terrible back, I’d be screaming in a very short time. That would go over real well with today’s over reactive flight staff, wouldn’t it?

        I don’t see what all the fuss is about personally. The seat only reclines a few inches. I’ve certainly never found myself with my head in anyone’s lap. How gross would that be? Just imagine looking at all those nose hairs! Euwwwww!

        • Yes, it is gross.

          And I have back problems, too, including sciatica. Which makes it very hard for my hips and legs to be at a 90-degree angle for any length of time. But that’s my problem, not anyone else’s. As I say, when I choose to fly, I spring for a bigger seat. Otherwise, I don’t go.

          As with the TSA, it is a choice. This is probably my 300th time of saying this, but what the hell — unless you’re forced to fly for work or for a family or medical emergency, you’re choosing to fly. Choosing to support the abusive system of the TSA and choosing to support an airline industry that doesn’t give a shit.

          People are voting with their wallets. As long as people continue to buy tickets, conditions must not be that bad.

    • Daisiemae

      Actually, I think it’s far more self centered for someone to think he/she has the right to interfere with the proper function of another passenger’s seat. The person who paid for the seat gets to use it.

      When I used to fly, people inclined their seat in front of me. No big deal. It’s their seat. They can do what they want. I just kept eating my meal, reading my book, or watching movies on my laptop. It didn’t interfere with me, and I certainly did not interfere with them or the proper function of their seat.

      This is simply an issue that angry people have focused on. People today are so angry from all the abuse they are taking from the government, airlines, etc that people act out in all manner of antisocial aggression. The reclining seat issue is something they can pour out all their frustrations on.

      It’s a turf war, and people are out for blood. We’re all like vermin thrown into a garbage can, scrambling to climb our way to the top.

  • Amy Alkon

    We need the Civil Liberties Defender. It requires no purchase, just a person who values our civil liberties enough to stand up for them.

  • Chris Bray

    I’ve just decided to market a new product. I’m going to call it the Crotch Defender. It’ll be shaped like a shallow cup, and painted the same shade of blue as a TSA uniform. “Opt out — of unwanted sexual contact with government employees.”

    • Chris, something similar has been tried, back in 2010:

      But, of course, the TSA has since banned them.

      • Chris Bray

        Reality outruns satire: The TSA story.

    • Amy Alkon

      A judge friend also gave me a little metal copy (business card-sized) of the Fourth Amendment to wear through the TSA. I haven’t flown since.

      • Dolt

        Penn & Teller sells metal pocket size copies of the Bill of Rights specifically for the spectacle of forcing the TSA to literally take your rights away at the airport.

        I always thought this was pretty clever.

        • Amy Alkon

          Thanks, actually, that’s what it is. I have it by my desk somewhere; just never flew after I got it. The judge is friends with Penn and got it from him.

        • I bought it years ago as soon as I heard about it via an interview with Penn. “Here, take my rights,” he says after he dings the metal detector, pretending to have forgotten it in his pocket. Then again, since I don’t fly in this country anymore I haven’t had a chance to use it.

          • Dolt

            I haven’t flown since 2011 to give it a go myself either, but I enjoy the thought behind it. Unfortunately, I imagine just blank stares from The Clerks as the entire idea of it all goes way over their heads.