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Legroom wars break out in high skies
- Right to recline versus right to defend knee: a small device triggers a big fight

A knee defender in place on the stem of the meal tray

Aug. 29: A device that prevents the passenger in front of you on an aircraft from tilting back their seat has inflamed one of the most contentious debates facing the modern traveller: does one have an unassailable right to recline?

The knee defender is an innocuous looking gadget — a pair of plastic clips that attach to a lowered seat-back table. Its effects, however, can be explosive.

Earlier this week, a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver was forced to divert to O’Hare airport in Chicago after a dispute broke out between two passengers over its use. A man had attached the device to his table, preventing the woman in front from reclining. He refused to remove it, despite being ordered to do so by the flight crew.

The woman became so upset that she threw a glass of water over him. Both passengers were removed from the plane.

On Wednesday, a row over legroom forced a US passenger jet to be diverted. The American Airlines flight from Miami to Paris had to turn back on Wednesday evening after the clash between Edmond Alexandre, a 61-year-old Frenchman, and a passenger in front who was attempting to recline the seat.

The demand for the knee defender has skyrocketed, according to Ira Goldman, the 6-foot-3-inch American businessman who invented it. The device, available online on gadgetduck.com, costs $21.95 (Rs 1,395) plus delivery charges. The “ship-to-country” list does not include India but the site says special arrangements can be made.

Many airlines in America have banned the gadget but the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not — because the knee defender can be used only when the meal tray is lowered. Meal trays cannot be lowered when the plane is taking off, landing or taxiing — which means the FAA has not yet intervened on the gadget row as the device doesn’t enter the picture during the three stages.

Officials of several Indian airlines said they had never encountered passengers on their flights who wanted to use a knee-defender. They were, however, not sure how they would react if any passenger wanted to use a knee-defender. “There is no specific rule on this,” said an official of IndiGo.

The directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) said there was no specific rule on use of knee-defenders by a passenger. “There are rules on passenger facilities on board but it doesn’t mention knee-defender,” said a DGCA official.

A knee-defender is also not technically prohibited under the Indian civil aviation security rules. “A knee-defender is not a banned item. So we can’t prevent anyone from carrying it on board,” said a senior official of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) that looks after the security of airports in India.

In India, most airlines, even the low-cost carriers, have reclining seats with variable degrees of recline, said an official of the airlines operators’ committee.

Airline officials said the crew of a flight would at times get requests from passengers to change their seats because the passenger in front was reclining. “Normally, we change the seats of those passengers but in cases when the flight is full, there is a problem,” said an official of Jet Airways.

Passengers wanting extra leg space on a flight make requests at the time of bookings. “Then it becomes easier for us (the front row and the emergency-door row has more leg room. If the flight is not full, some passengers can be accommodated behind a vacant seat). But at times passengers make such requests after boarding,” said another official of a low-cost carrier.

Achinto Bose, a manager with Tourism Malaysia in India and a frequent flier, said: “I frequently face a problem because a passenger sitting in front has reclined his seat.”

He said that on most occasions, the passengers do not inform the passenger on the rear seat that he or she would recline the seat, causing inconvenience. “Once I was working on my laptop, keeping it on the food tray. But the passenger suddenly reclined the seat without any warning. My laptop fell off the tray and there were scratches on the screen but luckily it was not damaged.”

A furious debate has played out in the US media, with The Weekly Standard declaring recliners to be “monsters”.

The New York Times advocated a free market approach; if you do not want the passenger in front of you to recline, it said, you should pay them.

The gadget comes with a “Courtesy Card” that can be given to the passenger in front of you to tell them you are using the clips.

The card introduces the concept of “Knee Defender” and says: “Unfortunately, my legs are so long that if you recline your seat at all, it would immediately bang into my knees. As best I can estimate, you could recline your seat about ____ inches without banging into my knees. If you would like to recline your seat this much at some point during the flight, please let me know and I will adjust my Knee Defender so that is possible….

“I realise that this may be an inconvenience. If so, I hope you will complain to the airline. Maybe working together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers. Thank you for your understanding. Your fellow passenger.”


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