The Knee Defender Stops Airline Seats From Reclining, But Is it Ethical?

knee defenderLast week, I heard about a product called the Knee Defender, which, when attached to the tray table of an airline seat, restricts how far the person in front of you can recline, on an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” Apparently, this product has been available for more than nine years, but this was the first I’d heard of it. In the intro to the episode, host Ira Glass talks to Ken Hegan, a 6’2″ travel writer who uses the Knee Defender on flights, about the etiquette of using this unique little product.

As a frequent flier who often feels cramped in coach, I was intrigued, but wondered if it was ethical to limit another traveler’s ability to recline. So I contacted Ira Goldman, the inventor, to ask him how it works and whether it’s kosher to keep fellow passengers erect, or semi-erect in their seats.


How does the Knee Defender work?

It’s like a paper clip. You put it on the arms of the tray table. The tray table arms and the seat rotate on the same axis, so when the tray table arms come back and the seat’s not reclined, it’s like the blades of scissors. If you put something between the blades of scissors when they’re open, you can’t close them. That’s the dynamic of the Knee Defender.

According to your site, the Knee Defender isn’t FAA approved, but they also haven’t outlawed it, correct?

Correct. They only approve the things they have jurisdiction over and they’ve judged that they don’t have jurisdiction over this, so they have no problem with it as long as you aren’t using it during takeoff, landing or taxiing, but that’s when you need to have your tray table up anyways, so you couldn’t use it then even if you wanted to.

Have any airlines banned it?

The FAA has said it’s fine, my customers who are using it say it’s fine and as far as I know, it’s fine. That’s the bottom line.

But is this ethical? Doesn’t the passenger in front of you have a right to recline his seat?

When I fly, my knees touch the seatback in front of me. I’m only 6’3″, and I would even take the magazines out so in other words, that person isn’t reclining, because my knees will stop them, with or without the Knee Defender. All the Knee Defender does is, instead of my knees stopping the seat, the Knee Defender stops the seat. So the ethical challenge is not really there as you pose it, because it’s not as if they’d otherwise be able to recline.

Every Knee Defender that’s ever been sold says, ‘Don’t hog space.’ You should only use it to the extent that you need it. A number of customers, for example, use it with their laptops. If someone reclines, you can’t use it on your tray table, and it can also catch onto the little lip of the seatback. It can break your laptop.

The Knee Defender is adjustable. You can adjust it so they can recline not really at all or some amount, so this is marketed to stop people from being hit in the knees by seatbacks.

If I’m in my seat, trying to recline and I can’t, I would probably hail a stewardess. If she notices the Knee Defender, how would the situation unfold?

On the Knee Defender tag it says, ‘always listen to the flight attendant.’ Customers tell me that sometimes the flight attendant will say ‘don’t do that’ and they’ll have to take it off, and other times, they’ll realize there’s no leg room, so it’s not going to make a difference, so the flight attendant shrugs to the passenger who complains.

So it’s up to the flight attendant?

Yes, and frankly if there is room for the person to recline without hitting the person who bought my product, then when someone wants to recline, they should remove it (the Knee Defender). The Knee Defender isn’t called the I-want-more-space defender or the anti-claustrophobia-defender. It’s there to stop people from actually being hit.

If someone is using it just because they want a little more space, that’s not what it’s for. And if the flight attendant says you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

In the story on “This American Life,” the passenger who used your product handed the person in front of them a card warning them that they wouldn’t be able to recline their seat more than 2 inches. Does the product come with those cards?

There are two cards on our website. One if you don’t want to buy our product. It’s a note you can hand to the person in front of you that says, ‘By the way, I’ve got long legs, and if you recline, you’re going to bang into me.’ And then one that comes with the product that says the same thing but also says, ‘I’m using the Knee Defender, and if you want to recline, I’ll see if I can adjust it so we can both be happy.’

So what is the best etiquette? To notify the person in front of you that you’re using a Knee Defender or not?

On our site, we have a page about airplane etiquette. It may be wrong, but that’s my point of view. When you go to the restroom, do you knock on the door first, or do you just walk in? It’s up to each person.

Do you recline your seat when you fly?

No.

Even on a trans-Atlantic flight?

No. I get a window seat and lean against the wall.

Is it uncomfortable for a tall person to recline or you think it’s rude?

I don’t think it’s rude if you know what you’re reclining into. It’s like pulling out of your driveway. You look and then you pull out. If someone is coming, you don’t pull out.

So if the person behind you is using a laptop, eating, or is just tall or large, you shouldn’t recline?

I think so, but at the end of the day, there is no physical space for some people to recline into. My knees often hit the seat in front of me, in a normal situation. There are also lap babies. You can be sitting there bouncing a baby on your lap and the person in front of you reclines, and the baby gets smacked in the head.

Some would say that if you’re too tall or large, you should just buy a business class ticket, right?

That’s a question of space. I’m not talking about space; I’m talking about not being hit in the knees. If you have short legs, and you aren’t using a laptop, or have a lap baby, don’t buy our product.

I’m only 5’11” and I thought about buying one. Does that make me a bad person?

There’s nothing to keep us from promoting this as ‘more legroom.’ But that’s just not me. I don’t have to say in the instructions how to use it appropriately, but we do.

Author’s Comment: I generally don’t mind people in front of me reclining, and if there was a situation where I didn’t want them to recline, I wouldn’t hesitate to communicate directly with that person. But I can see where some people are too shy to do that, and in that case, the Knee Defender might come in handy. Still, the airlines make seats that recline, so I suppose that means that people have a right to do it, even if you have long legs or happen to be eating, using a laptop, or holding a baby. What do you think?

[Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Ira Goldman]