The Knee Defender Incident: Airlines should have seen this coming

By now, you’ve probably heard the story about the United Airlines flight that was diverted in mid-route because two passengers got into a squabble over intrusions into personal space. The airlines should have seen this coming.

To recap the story briefly, a passenger on United (NYSE:UAL) Flight 1462 from Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Denver (DEN) on Sunday, August 24 was working on his laptop. To ensure that the passenger in front of him wouldn’t crunch his computer, he used a device called the Knee Defender to prevent that passenger’s seat from reclining. Read CNN’s account here.

Knee Defender
Photo courtesy
The device, shown at right, is basically a block of plastic about the size of a house key (shown in the picture for comparison purposes) that slips over the seat tray’s rails and holds the seat in front in the upright position. The sales pitch is that the passenger whose seat won’t recline will simply assume the seat is broken, and that will be the end of it.

Nice in theory; not so much in practice.

On this flight, the woman whose seat was blocked from reclining apparently spotted the offending device – which, by the way, the airline prohibits – and called the flight attendant. The flight attendant asked the passenger to remove the device, but he refused. Despite her inability to recline, the woman wasn’t taking that lying down and reportedly threw a glass of soda on the man.

A short while later, the pilot announced the plane would be diverting to Chicago (ORD), where both parties were summarily thrown off the plane.While neither the airline, the FAA or the TSA provided much in the way of specifics, I would conclude the woman was thrown off for the hostile and aggressive act of throwing soda on the man and possibly ruining his laptop, while the man was likely ousted for disobeying airline policy.

Read the man's account here.

The airlines should have seen this coming.

For years, they've been looking for ways to cram more people into ever-smaller seats with less and less legroom, wringing the joy out of flying and clearly increasing the stress among airline passengers. The Knee Defender was invented as a way to protect some of that shrinking space and make it possible to work on one's laptop while in flight.

But instead of taking the invention of the Knee Defender as a sign of a problem that needed to be fixed, the airlines banned the devices. That's like telling someone with a brain tumor to take aspirin for the headaches: it only addresses the symptoms, not the cause of the problem.

The lesson the airlines should be learning is simple: People need more space.

And it wouldn't take much to give it to us, the traveling public.

According to, seats on a 737-900 like the one involved in the Knee Defender incident, have a pitch of 31 inches in Economy and 35 inches in Premium Economy. There are 24 rows of seats in a three-by-three configuration, plus one row of three seats on the right side of the aircraft. If the airline took out two rows of seats, that would provide about 70 inches of additional space, considering both the pitch and the thickness of the seats. Spread that space over the remaining 22 rows and the airline could give every Economy passenger 35 or 36 inches of legroom.

Taking out 12 seats would reduce the number of main cabin seat by less than 10 percent, so charging 10 percent more per seat should keep the airline’s revenue at its current level.

I would gladly pay an additional 10 percent not to be crammed in like sardines, and I’m betting a great many other travelers would as well.

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