I’ve taken up the issue of reclining airplanes seats a few times now and firmly established myself as someone who supports reclining — but also being polite, thoughtful and communicative with the person behind you. I was ready to leave the subject alone, but then the patron saint of the non-reclining movement got in touch, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chat.
Ira Goldman is a self-described “former Capitol Hill wonk” who stands 6-foot-3 and found himself with painfully little room for his knees on most airplanes. The answer for him was to create the Knee Defender. Introduced in 2003, the Knee Defender is a simple little contraption that amounts to two pieces of plastic measuring about 2 inches by an inch that lock onto the arms of a tray table and inhibit the seat ahead from reclining.
Goldman and I spent nearly two hours on the telephone in a conversation that was animated and amicably disagreeable. Here’s a transcript edited for space and clarity.
Q: What led you to create Knee Defender?
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A: Back in the late ’90s I was sleeping on a flight when the person in front of me reclined and smacked my knee with the hard aluminum tubing inside the seat. It hurt! It didn’t disable me, and I wasn’t permanently injured, but I said, “This isn’t right.” That was my limit. It’s not supposed to be full-contact flying. It’s supposed to be flying.
Q: Did you try several designs before settling on the current product?
A: Oh God, yes. I have two friends who are engineers, and every week I’d put a few prototypes in the mail to them. They would send back notes, and I would make adjustments. There’s an amazing variety of thickness and size of the arms on tray tables. We needed to come up something that would work on most airplanes. I spent a year working on prototypes.
Q: Where did the basic design come from?
A: The Eureka moment was on a flight from California to Europe. This woman in front of me was reclining, and she raised her seat to get up, and I saw the mechanics of how the seat worked. The edge of the seatback and the arms of the tray table are two pieces of aluminum rotating on the same axis — it moves like a scissor. If you open the blades of a scissors and put something hard between them you can’t close the scissors. I had a compact umbrella and laid it across the arms of the tray table to see what would happen. When she came back, she couldn’t recline her seat. I went, “Wow, that’s so cool.” Realizing this could be fixed was a great moment.
Q: But did you fix anything? Most airlines forbid the product, and it has led to plenty of midair squabbles, some of which have led to planes being grounded.
A: I’m not going to convince you Knee Defender is polite or the right thing. You have your point of view, and I’ve learned that people have pretty strong views on it. But it’s right because it is a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist. If the problem was resolved by the people who should resolve it — the airlines — Knee Defender would disappear. Airlines have a duty to provide a safe environment for their passengers, and passengers have a right to protect themselves from being hurt.
Q: Well, I’d agree there. I think everyone’s real gripe is with the airlines for shrinking space on airplanes and making the flying experience so remarkably unpleasant. Do you agree?
A: One would think that in my position I’d be advocating for the airlines to put fewer seats on the planes. I won’t say that. They can put as many seats on the plane as they want as long as passengers are not subject to having their knees banged into.
Q: But it’s not the right of the person behind me to take away that right. The airlines have already made that decision: When you buy plane ticket, it comes with a seat that reclines.
A: They have given you the ability to recline into the space behind your seat, but they have given me, with my ticket, access to that same space for my long legs. They have sold me that space, and they have sold you that space. The concern I have is that they have essentially sold the same space twice.
Q: That’s a fair point that I hadn’t considered. But the seats recline, and we all know that. I would argue that airlines offer extra legroom at a premium, and if you don’t want a seat to recline into your space, then buy the more expensive seat with more legroom.
A: If claustrophobia is the issue, then buy the bigger seat. I’m not claustrophobic. Why should I have to buy more space?
Q: Because you require more space.
A: I believe the airline sold me the space that my legs consume. You only sort of agree with that. That’s where we disagree.
Q: What about just reclining yourself to solve the problem?
A: This was on my list of things I wanted to discuss. Yes, you regain the cubic space you lost by reclining. But it doesn’t do anything to change the distance from your seatback to the seatback in front of you. Reclining doesn’t change the ability to stretch your legs out. It’s just geometry. It doesn’t solve the problem.
Q: So how do we resolve this issue? What do you want the airlines to do?
A: Install seats that don’t recline. Or they can give us a 33-inch seat pitch again. (The industry average is about 31 inches.)
Q: But you can have a 33-inch pitch. You can buy it for extra money!
A: I shouldn’t have to buy more space just to prevent a seatback from hitting me when it reclines.
Q: OK, we’re talking in circles now. Let’s change gears. As a business owner and inventor, I imagine it must have been gratifying to see your invention come to prominence and become part of the national discussion.
A: It was — thank you for asking. It was exciting to provide something that people wanted. The product has never been advertised. People found it because they thought they needed it. It has helped focus attention on an issue that airlines hoped no one would notice.
Q: Well, they’ve noticed. And they have forbidden the device from being used on their flights. Are you suggesting that people should use it anyway? That’s aviation anarchy!
A: I’ve said from the start that Knee Defender shouldn’t be used to hog space. It should be placed only so that you have the amount of room that you need for your knees. If you take it on the plane and no one notices, then you can use it. If you use it and you’re asked to stop, then I would suggest taking it off. You might have a right to recline, but I have a right to do what’s reasonable to protect myself from being hit by a piece of airplane equipment. If you use Knee Defender any other way, you’re wrong.