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Does device infringe on passengers’ right to recline?

When can sleepy passengers recline their seats? (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — When do airline passengers have the right to recline?

Most airlines don’t have specific chair-reclining rules for travelers outside of takeoffs and landings, leaving passengers to fight for every inch of space in crowded, cramped planes.

On Sunday, two passengers literally fought for their legroom. A United Airlines Denver-bound flight was diverted just halfway to its destination after two passengers got into an argument because one passenger was using the Knee Defender — a $21.95 gadget that attaches to a passenger’s tray table and prevents the person in front of them from reclining.

All major airlines prohibit the use of the Knee Defender, says Associated Press correspondent, Scott Mayerowitz.

Mayerowitz, who covers the travel and airline industries, says while he doesn’t condone the passengers’ actions, limited space on airplanes is a reality exacerbated by passengers who lean back their seats.

“So you’re sitting there and you’re cramped in and you’re dying for every single inch of personal space and if anybody takes away any bit of that, you get upset,” Mayerowitz says.

“You can clearly see how you could get into a situation where you’re completely upset over two or three inches of recline.”

Defending the Knee Defender

While the Knee Defender seems like a good means to prevent a passenger from invading personal space, it has been a controversial gadget.

The Knee Defender was invented by D.C. resident Ira Goldman in 2003, according to ABC News. The device uses two small pieces of plastic, which can be clipped onto the arm of the tray table, preventing the seat from reclining.

Goldman — who is 6 foot, 4 inches — tall says the invention was born out of necessity.

“If I hadn’t been bashed in the knees over and over again, this wouldn’t have been invented,” Goldman tells ABC News.

Knee Defender is geared not only toward tall fliers, but also parents looking to control small children, according to its website.

There are some safety concerns associated with bringing the device onto planes, Mary Stanik, a Northwest spokeswoman, says to ABC News.

“If the seat is damaged, including the tray table, in flight, it may adversely affect passenger evacuation in the event of an emergency,” she says.

The Federal Aviation Administration leaves it up to individual airlines to set rules about the the device.

It is not clear how the passenger on the United Airlines flight was able to get the Knee Defender on the flight where it’s banned.

The fight started when the male passenger on the flight from Newark, New Jersey, seated in a middle seat, used the Knee Defender to stop the woman in front of him from reclining while he was on his laptop, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak.

A flight attendant asked him to remove the device and he refused. The woman then stood up, turned around and threw a cup of water at him, the official says. That’s when United decided to land in Chicago. The two passengers were not allowed to continue to Denver.

Airline Etiquette

So when can passengers lean their seats back? It’s a highly debated question in the frequent flier community, Mayerowitz says.

He says there are some things to consider when it comes to reclining:

  • It’s your seat. Passengers are allowed to recline seat unless a flight crew has told them otherwise. It’s suggested not to recline during meal time.
  • Be courteous. Asking the passenger behind you if he or she is OK with you reclining can go a long way with patience.
  • Judge the surroundings. If the passenger behind you is working or using the tray table, don’t recline all the way back. Reclining halfway can be a happy medium.
  • Consider the time. If it’s an overnight flight, be understanding of those who want to recline.
  • Fly on no-reclining airline. If you’re anti-reclining, consider flying Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, which both take the reclining mechanisms out of their seats, leaving them permanently upright.

Mayerowitz says keeping your cool and understanding both sides can help.

“I’ve been the person who wants to sleep on a flight and I’ve been the guy working on a story on my laptop on the plane and find it suddenly crushed into my lap,” he says.

Watch a video of the Knee Defender in use in 2007:

The Associated Press contribute to this report. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.


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