When it comes to air travel, we are all (now literally) fighting for inches. A recent United flight traveling from Newark to Denver was forced to land because two passengers — a 48-year-old man and woman — got into an altercation over the Knee Defender, a small plastic device that prevents the seat in front of you from reclining. There was yelling after a request for removal of the device by one passenger was denied by the other, there was a cup of water thrown, and the plane landed in Chicago, kicked the two passengers off, and continued on to Denver, arriving an hour-and-a-half late.
While the Knee Defender isn't outlawed by the FAA, most airlines have policies against its use.
As a long-legged person whose knees suffer every time I fly (I've taken to begging, pre-boarding, to get switched to an exit row, sometimes with success), I can see both sides of this issue. It's genuinely painful for me to sit behind someone who has reclined fully — there's just nowhere for my legs to go, and sometimes it makes me feel claustrophobic too. My 6'2" partner, whose legs are only a bit longer than my own, even though I'm just above average height at 5'6", has the same issue. He is low-average weight and I'm of average size otherwise, and we just don't fit.
There have been times — and I hate to admit it, but I will — that I would have used a Knee Defender if I'd had one. And before you think I'm a total jerk for even considering the use of such a device, I will also say that I never-ever recline my seat fully unless there's nobody behind me. I think it's really rude to push your seat all the way back, so I don't. Since there are seats on every plane that don't recline (usually in the last row, but sometimes elsewhere as well; I always check SeatGuru beforehand), it seems that the recline isn't a "right" when you buy a seat, whereas space for legs that doesn't crush you is more defensible. One is a preference — leaning back is nice, but not necessary.
Some people agree with me:
And some people don't.
That being said, if someone behind me used a Knee Defender and I couldn't recline at all, I would probably be extremely annoyed. But half a recline seems like a compromise. And full recline has other issues. As Emily, on the New York Times comment section wrote: "It's not even about legroom -- if you recline fully, your head/hair/scalp is only inches from the face of the person behind you. That's just plain gross."
So what's the solution? I think it's two-fold. The first thing is that we should force airlines to deal with the fact that they aren't providing even average-sized people with enough room and it's wrong. Legroom used to be fairly standard in economy at 33 inches but to squeeze 12 more seats in, new planes have 31 inches of legroom, says this story from 2009 (which means we're all suffering in those planes now). I just measured the length from my butt to my knee while sitting and it's 29 inches — so when someone reclines, no wonder my knees are hit. Those two extra inches they took away make a big difference.
The second (more short-term) solution is to talk to the person sitting in front of you. I have asked nicely for someone to recline a bit less, and the person complied, after I explained that it killed my knees. Working together to solve problems is always more effective than starting wars (or defending them).
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