Knee Defender Keeps Passengers Upright, Uptight

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, October 28, 2003

It's a recipe for air rage.

You're settling in for the long flight when you get the urge to recline your seat. You push the armrest button, give a little shove backward -- and nothing happens. You try again. Nothing. The seat won't budge.

You investigate, and you discover that the passenger behind you has locked your seatback in the upright position.

Welcome to world of the Knee Defender, a plastic palm-size clip that attaches to a passenger's tray table, preventing the seat in front from reclining.

The device, created by Ira Goldman, 50, a former Capitol Hill staff member, has ignited a heated debate over the longtime issue of a passenger's right to recline. On one side sit those who happily pay the $10 cost of the device and even more happily fly cross-country without damage to their knees. On the other side are outraged travelers who just want to catch a little shut-eye in a comfy, reclining position -- and think the clip unfairly intrudes on their private space.

"This is about protection, not space," said the 6-foot-3 Goldman, who conceived of the Knee Defender on an international flight behind a passenger who repeatedly banged the seat into his knees.

Goldman said he has sold about 1,000 of the clips through his Web site, www.kneedefender.com, since it was introduced a month ago. In that short time, the device has sparked lively chatter in online travel discussions and has come under the scrutiny of the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Northwest Airlines has banned the gadget and ordered its flight attendants to be on the lookout for it. Other airlines, including United, US Airways and American, said they were studying the device's impact on passenger safety and comfort.

"We don't believe a passenger should interfere with another passenger's ability to recline their seats," said American spokesman Tim Wagner.

Flight attendants said they already have plenty of delicate situations to referee onboard and that seeking out and seizing Knee Defenders would create "unbelievable tension between the flight attendants and passengers," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants.

FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said the clips were not against federal aviation rules as long as they weren't used during taxiing, takeoffs or landings.

The Knee Defender sits on the arm of an open tray table, creating a wedge against the seat in front and blocking the seat from reclining. It comes with instructions urging users to comply with flight attendants' wishes and to "be polite to fellow passengers." The label also encourages passengers to "stand up for your right to sit down, in safety and good health."

Ann Clogherty of Vienna purchased her Knee Defender over the weekend and plans to use it as much as she can before the airlines crack down. Clogherty said the airlines have crammed too many seats into their planes, stealing legroom from passengers. "The personal space of a passenger ends where my legs begin," said the six-foot-tall Clogherty.

Computer programmer Rawligh Sybrant bought a Knee Defender so he could keep his legs stretched out to avoid blood clotting. The Olney resident said he won't buy tickets on airlines that prohibit him from using the device.

Some travelers have figured out ways to prevent reclining without the clip. Goldman said he knows of passengers who ball up blankets and wedge them between the seat and tray table, producing the same effect as his device.

Goldman, who served as Capitol Hill counsel for then California Sen. Pete Wilson and as a former Republican counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, drew up the prototype in the basement of his Mt. Pleasant row house. He has outsourced the manufacturing and spends about 16 hours a day running his business.

"I'm making money, but I think this is addressing a specific need," Goldman said.

Indeed, the right to recline has been a touchy issue ever since an airline seat first popped backward -- and the war shows little sign of abating. Flying recently to Tahiti on Air France, Andrea T. Williams of New Hope, Pa., put her seat back only to have her hair pulled by the passenger behind her. Every time she reclined, Williams said, she was attacked. Her assailant hit her in the head and threw soda on her. "It was a nightmare," she said.

Williams stands by her right to recline, saying she would never buy Goldman's gadget. "I think it's unfair to expect a passenger to sit upright in a very uncomfortable seat when he or she paid for the ticket to travel," she said.

Flying Into California: Airlines continue to report delayed and canceled flights due to the California wildfires. Several airlines, including United and Southwest, are waiving their $100 rebooking fees into those areas. United canceled 56 flights Sunday and 66 flights Monday into airports in Los Angeles, Burbank, Ontario, San Diego and Orange County, and expects more cancellations today. United passengers who were ticketed on flights between Oct. 26 and Nov. 3 may rebook on flights through Nov. 15 without a fee (call the airline for details). Southwest Airlines urged travelers to call to find out the status of their flights if they're flying into Los Angeles, Burbank, Ontario, San Diego or Orange County/John Wayne airports.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company