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

Last 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?


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]

Hypnotizing Video Of Planes Landing At London Heathrow

London’s Heathrow airport is among the world’s busiest airports for passengers, with the total number of travelers passing through in the first half of 2012 topping out at over 46 Million. Think about that number for a moment and try to put it in context. It’s not easy, is it?

To give some sense of what a typical travel day looks like at this London transportation hub, watch the above video. This dizzying time-lapse of takeoffs and landings, with planes hovering mid-air like buzzing honeybees entering the hive, is a hypnotic visual reminder of just how much travel we’re all doing these days.

ExpertFlyer Launches Seat Alert App

With airlines constantly reducing the number of free seats available at booking, more and more passengers are finding it impossible to guarantee seating when they purchase their tickets. Because of this, many travelers wait until they reach the airport to get a seat, resulting in parties being separated and less than ideal assignments near the back of the plane or in between other passengers.

The airlines take most of the fault for this, but there are a few neat tools to use if you want to get around the seat monster.

ExpertFlyer just released theirs for the iOS (Apple) platform. The tool basically takes a look at the seats available for each flight on which you’re traveling then alerts you when something changes. So if you’re stuck in a middle seat on UA 884, for example, you can ask the tool to search every day and then nudge you when a window seat opens up. The service is free, and is an extension of the greater offerings that ExpertFlyer provides.

Check out the iTunes page for more information.

A Fresh Air Fiend’s Moments of Travel Bliss

Freedom. That’s the whole point of travel, right? Travel is about untethering yourself from your comfort zone to satisfy your curiosity about what’s around the corner, or around the world. Done right, it can be incredibly liberating. But in the U.S., and increasingly around the world, risk adverse corporations, trigger happy lawyers and Big Brother can sometimes take all the freedom and liberty out of our travel experiences.

In May, I had two experiences on FSE, a small regional train line in Italy that reminded me how joyful travel can be when you have the wind in your hair and there are seemingly no rules. The first blissful ride was a short trip from Lecce to Otranto, in Italy’s heel.
FSE trains are shorter and narrower than full size ones, so you have the feeling of being on a mini-train. On this day, there were only a few other passengers on board the three- or four-car train and we had an entire car to ourselves. It was a warm afternoon, and we were passing through a lovely landscape dotted with olive groves, palm trees and tiny little train stations where bored young men used hand crank machinery to shift tracks for passing trains.There were ten windows and I went through the car and opened every one of them as far as I could. I wandered about the empty car, reveling in the life-affirming breeze, which was blowing the train curtains to and fro. I occasionally popped my head out the window, just for the hell of it and because no one was there to tell me not to.

Italians hate open windows on a train, so I was well aware that someone might board the train and end my party at any moment. But it never happened, a few others joined us, but they left the windows open. I enjoyed the ride immensely; in fact, I didn’t really want it to end. But it also reminded me of how rare a commodity fresh air is in hotels, buses, trains and even some ferries these days.

Paul Theroux named one of his books “Fresh Air Fiend” and he could have been writing about me. Unless the weather is brutally hot, I love to be outside and I always want the windows open. But in the U.S., and other countries, it’s getting harder and harder to control one’s access to fresh air. Some hotels don’t let you open the window at all, and others let you open it just a crack.

This spring, I stayed at a Marriott in Zurich and our room had a dramatic view of the city with snow capped mountains as a backdrop. I called down to the front desk to ask them if I could have just one little photo op with the window open, but they wouldn’t budge.

“It’s for liability purposes,” the English speaker at the front desk said.

“But I won’t get that close to the open window,” I pleaded. “Look, you can even have someone hold my hands if you like.”

But it was no use – they refused to let me open the window, even to take a photo. At least in hotel rooms though, one can usually exert some measure of control over the room temperature, imperfect though those systems often are. On a sealed-shut train or bus with no ability to open the window, you are at the mercy of whatever the room temperature is. I’m always warm and my wife is usually cold.

The main reason I don’t like flying is the claustrophobia – there is limited space to move about and you obviously can’t open the windows to get some fresh air. But newer trains and buses are also becoming like flying coffins, where we are sealed shut and protected from both the elements and ourselves. In our cars, we can still put the windows down, at least for now, but the newer ones will squawk at you should you have the nerve to unbuckle your seatbelt, even for a moment.

You can almost always get some fresh air on a ferry ride, but even there you can occasionally be forced inside a sealed coffin. I was on a small ferry in very rough seas en route to the Greek island of Syros in June and the crew forced those of us who were on the deck to go inside when the going got particularly rough. I didn’t feel seasick on deck but inside the cabin with nothing but stagnant, warm air, my stomach started to churn.

And while the fresh air issue isn’t just a U.S. problem, we do seem to have more rules and regulations – many of them inspired by our lawsuit happy culture – that can make travel feel less spontaneous and fun.

I’m not a big drinker but when I visited the ancient Italian college town of Perugia this spring and saw all of the young and not-so-young people enjoying adult beverages in the squares, I wondered why we couldn’t allow the same here. We’re strict about public consumption of alcohol but our college students engage in more binge drinking than the Italians, who are free to drink from an earlier age and in public.

My second moment of travel bliss came on the same train, this time heading to Gallipoli. FSE conductors wear no uniforms, which gives the whole experience a rather casual vibe, and one of them invited my sons to come into his control room to blow the train whistle (see video).

My sons, ages 2 and 4, loved having an opportunity to push the button to blow the whistle and the conductor let them do it over and over again. But after they got bored with that, he actually let my 4-year-old take over the controls of the train for a minute or two (see video below). Now, he was obviously standing right there and could have taken over at any point if an emergency arose, but I just sat back laughing, thinking that there’s no chance that Amtrak would allow such fun and frivolity.

So here’s three cheers for hotels, trains and buses with windows that open, drinking in public and allowing 4-year-olds to drive trains. After all, these are the things that travel is all about.

Inside United’s First 787 Dreamliner At Boeing HQ

We knew it was coming, but now that we’ve had a chance to step on board United Airlines’ latest jetliner in person, we’ll surely be counting the days until we can ease into one of those airborne recliners as the carrier’s 787 takes to the skies. Just days after getting its first coat of paint (and that unique nose-to-tail swoop), United opened up its Dreamliner for journalists, select customers and a handful of staffers to take a first look at the 787’s interior, which includes 36 flat-bed BusinessFirst seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, 72 Economy Plus seats with up to 36 inches of pitch and 111 Economy seats with a fairly standard 32 inches of pitch.

You could have garnered that from glancing at a seat map. What’s not so clear is just how magnificent this aircraft is to ride, or, in the case of our grounded demo at Boeing’s Everett factory today, how it looks from the ground. This isn’t our first trip down the aisles of a 787, having flown on ANA’s Dreamliner with Engadget in Japan last year. In comparison to the 777, however, where we’ve spent weeks of time in flight, it’s quite exciting to see how the in-flight experience is improving, even when compared to the pleasant ride on the carrier’s previous-generation flagship.

%Gallery-161659%United will be operating the Dreamliner on new and existing routes, and while we don’t know exactly where the 787 will fly first, service is slated begin later this year. The first confirmed route will launch on March 31st between Denver and Tokyo, growing direct service between the Japanese hub and the U.S. to 10 cities (including Honolulu and Guam). Passengers on board those flights will certainly appreciate the oversized dimmable windows and giant overhead bins, along with all-LED lighting, which sadly are limited to basic color configurations, rather than the ANA we’ve seen during boarding on ANA.

The 787 is more than a foot narrower than the 777, but United maintained the same seating configuration as its Continental acquisitions, which you might assume makes the aircraft seem a bit cramped. The higher ceilings and open feel made the difference almost unnoticeable, however, and the Continental-era BusinessFirst seats on board are still far superior to United’s own triple-7 layout, where four center seats mean you could end up paying for a bed yet still have a middle seat. Here, just like on those select triple-7s (mostly used on flights beginning in Houston or Newark), biz seats offer much more privacy, with more personal space and substantial dividers.


In the Y-cabin, seats seemed cushier than what we’ve used on United’s existing fleet, and feature the same in-flight entertainment system installed on some of the carrier’s current aircraft. Like BusinessFirst, these seats also feature larger dimmable windows and overhead bins which reportedly offer 30 percent more capacity than those on United’s 777. Rows 16 and 27 have substantially more legroom than other Economy Plus seats. In fact, there’s so much space between the window-side seats in row 27 that you could plop down a sleeping bag and camp out on the floor if the FAA permitted it.

Surprisingly, the most spacious seats on the plane aren’t in this row or even in the business cabin, but instead are located up a flight of stairs in a hidden second level. Two sets of crew quarters are located at the far forward and far aft positions, behind doors marked “Crew Only.” Through those doors and up a small flight of stairs you’ll find two full-size beds in the front of the Dreamliner and six in the rear. There’s not much room to do much other than sleep, but thick, full-length mattresses will surely enable pilots and flight attendants to make good use of scheduled rest periods.

We felt quite comfy during our visit to United’s 787, even on the main level, and while we couldn’t experience the boosted humidity, increased cabin pressure, noise suppression and computer-assisted smooth performance, it’s clear that the Dreamliner will be very popular among United passengers. There’s a few months to go until you can take a flight of your own, but we have plenty of photos to tide you over for now. Thumb through the galleries for a closer look, then scroll down below for a hands-on video from Engadget.