Should Knee Defender be banned on flights?

After an argument over the use of a seat-recline preventer becomes heated, a United Airlines flight is diverted. Should the device be banned?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Helpful or provocative?

Gadget Duck screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Airlines have developed a pulsating skill.

It's called lump as much as you can onto the passenger.

This means baggage fees, change fees, seat selection fees and all sorts of other hidden joys are paid for out of your pocket.

As an added bonus, should you be flying in coach, you get less legroom than inside a catwalk model's skinny jeans.

Is it truly surprising that passengers, being mere humans, become frustrated? But how should that frustration be expressed?

On Sunday, a woman wanted to recline her seat. The man immediately behind her was employing a Knee Defender. This is a somewhat draconian device that prevents the seat in front from reclining.

You clip it onto the seat in front and suddenly its occupant is paralyzed.

As the AP reports, the woman in front didn't take kindly to having her movement restricted. When the man refused to remove his device, even when asked to by cabin crew, the woman offered him an impromptu cup of water challenge.

This led to their United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey to Denver to make an impromptu landing in Chicago.

The two passengers were removed, but no arrests were made. However, actively preventing a seat from reclining represents a significantly aggressive act, couched in a defensive posture.

The Knee Defender Web site says that the product is adjustable "to help provide only as much protection as you need." It claims to be the protector of the tall against ever-decreasing legroom.

But it also impinges on the rights of another passenger from leaning back and using their seat as it was designed.

Moreover, it gives the user the ability to lock the passenger in front in a non-reclining seat, while feeling free to lean back themselves.

I contacted Knee Defender's maker, Gadget Duck, to ask whether there wasn't something stunningly self-righteous about the device. I will update, should they lean in with a response.

Clearly, the biggest offender here is the airline, which insists on crushing passengers in, purely for the sake of making money. We're only one step from standing tickets, which some airlines have already contemplated.

However, this particular incident happened in Economy Plus, a part of the plane that enjoys an extra 4" of legroom. Not that 4" is much, but reports suggest the Knee Defender user was one of those charming types who needs to use the tray table for slapping his laptop upon and typing away.

These laptop lizards seem to have no clue how their typing (and flailing elbows) might annoy others.

Surely the first step when a seat suddenly reclines in your direction is to politely ask the passenger in front whether you can reach an accommodation. Slapping them in your own self-righteous seat-cuffs is a touch provocative.

Knee Defender insists on its site: "If the airlines will not protect people from being battered, crunched, and immobilized -- very real problems according to healthcare professionals, medical studies, government agencies, and even some airlines -- then people need options to protect themselves."

Some might describe this as an argument of which the NRA would be proud.

Spirit Airlines thinks it has a solution for all this. It describes its new seats as "pre-reclining." This would be a euphemism for "don't recline at all."

So who's right? The passenger who wants to recline a seat that does actually recline? Or the one on the laptop who wants to stop someone else from reclining, while reserving the right to recline himself?

I fear the Supreme Court may soon have to sit and ponder this one.