On Aug. 24, United Airlines diverted a Newark-to-Denver flight to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after two passengers got into an argument. It started when a 47-year-old man used a device called the Knee Defender to prevent the 48-year-old woman in front of him from reclining her seat.
According to The Associated Press, a flight attendant told the male passenger that United does not allow the bracketlike gadget. He refused to remove it. The female passenger then threw water at the male passenger, which probably didn't thrill the passengers seated next to him. (He was in the middle seat.) The airliner's crew decided to arrive in Denver with two fewer passengers.
The story made national news because it hit home for so many travelers.
Airlines are flying fuller. Seat space has shrunk. The more crowded planes are the crankier passengers have become. Neither passenger is likely to be praised for his or her tact in dealing with others. As for the man in Row 12, he didn't need to use his people skills — not when he had the $22 knee-protecting device, a tool custom-made for the passive-aggressive traveler.
Oddly, The Washington Post's Justin Moyer reports, the knee-jerk device was invented by a former aide to Pete Wilson, a Republican former California governor and U.S. senator. According to Bloomberg, the 6-foot-3-inch Ira H. Goldman got the idea in 1998, when he was flying a lot — and his knees weren't enjoying the experience. On one flight, Goldman discovered that by laying an umbrella across his tray table, he could prevent the seat in front of him from reclining. He later tooled plastic clips that, if placed on a tray table, could keep the seat in front of a passenger in the upright position.
Goldman also invented a card to go along with his device. "Please do not recline your seat," it says. "I have provided you with this card because I have long legs and if you recline your seat you will bang into my knees. I realize that it can be nice to recline one's seat, but I hope you would agree with me that it should not be done at the expense of crushing someone else's knees — especially if this risk is known from the outset." After some more whining, the card suggests that if inconvenienced, the fellow traveler should "please complain to the airline so that they might be inspired to provide a solution."
There's an ultra-phony close to the note: "Thank you. Have a nice flight."
The thing is that the airlines have a solution for too little legroom. It's called pricing.
United offers Economy Plus — which, I was surprised to learn, is where the two evicted United Flight 1462 passengers were seated. Economy Plus gives customers an extra 4 inches of legroom. That extra room still wasn't enough.
I tried to get in touch with Goldman, but his website does not include an email address. I tried to send a message on the tortured "contact us" page but have no idea whether it got through. Do I detect a pattern? I believe that I do. The Knee Defender started as one man's way of not looking another person in the eye and figuring out how they could both get to their destination amicably.
I am a journalist. I can grouse with the gusto of a paid professional. And I appreciate a hearty "don't tread on me" spirit. But Goldman's approach is a recipe for air rage, and he knows it. His website instructs customers not to use the device if flight attendants tell them not to. And though I think it is not a hardship to fly in the upright position from Newark to Denver, there are people with back issues who might disagree.
As a onetime Republican aide, Goldman should know better than to blame the airlines. The American public wants cheap airfares. Airlines have given the public what it wants by selling full flights that offer less legroom and smaller seats. Those fares are the reason I can afford to fly cross-country for a weekend. Some people complain that airlines treat passengers like cattle; if so, that's because the public doesn't want to pay to be pampered. In the days when airlines pampered passengers, a smaller percentage of the public flew.
Goldman is engaging in magical thinking if he truly believes that his little cards will do anything to change how airlines operate. After all, jumbo jets may defy the laws of gravity, but the airline industry cannot beat the laws of economics.