The Knee Defender's Inventor Defends His Invention

With Knee Defenders at the center of travel firestorm, Ira Goldman says his invention is a response to the airlines, not to other passengers.

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Earlier this week, our long-simmering divide over plane etiquette came to a head when an argument between two passengers on a flight from Newark to Denver forced the plane to be diverted to Chicago. The argument was (in part) over one passenger's use of Knee Defenders, a gadget that blocks the seat ahead from reclining.

As you may recall, the flight attendant asked the man to remove the Knee Defenders and when he wouldn't, the woman ahead of him threw a glass of water in his face. Both passengers were subsequently thrown off the plane...after it was forced to land.

The Wire has since outlined the tenets of passenger etiquette and basic human decency, but partisans in the recline-or-not-recline camps remain unappeased.

And so we reached out to Ira Goldman, the 6-foot-3-inch creator of Knee Defenders, an invention that debuted nearly 11 years ago.

We wanted to get his take on the ongoing controversy, which has gone beyond the question of whether it's appropriate to recline a seat and inspired debate over the device itself.

When I asked Goldman about the backlash he immediately responded to my question with a question of his own: "Can I ask you how tall you are?"

Full disclosure: I am 5'9".

Following a long pause, Goldman referred me to a poll on "one of the networks" that showed support for Knee Defenders to be "fifty-fifty."

"When it comes to reclining, it's interesting because then some surveys show, definitely a majority say seats shouldn't recline at all if anyone's behind you," he said.

By this anecdotal, possibly scientific measure, Knee Defenders are more popular than the act of reclining. The subtext here is that the fault lies with the airlines and the planes' design,  not some unfeeling passengers.

He likened this particular injustice to other airlines injustices — the overbooking of flights and the subsequent bumping of passengers, the limited space for carry-ons that often leads to the gate-checking of bags. However, equipped with a Knee Defender, the passenger finally has some power.

But does the inequity of cramped quarters excuse the vigilante? Is it right to deprive the passenger ahead of you of his or her right to recline? When I asked Goldman about the ethics of the Knee Defender, he, after some explanation, again answered my question with a question.

Is it unethical to have long legs?"

As long legs remain often irreconcilable with reclining seats, part of what the Knee Defender means to do, according to Goldman, is start a conversation. As Christopher Muther explained in his defense of the product:

The Defender even comes with a courtesy card for your fellow blocked passenger which reads: 'I realize that this may be an inconvenience. If so, I hope you will complain to the airline. Maybe working together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers.'

Goldman added that he views the Knee Defender as something of an "early warning device." As we all know, people frequently recline with nary a thought for the passenger behind them who may have a laptop open, a cup of coffee on a precarious perch, or a "lap baby," as Goldman added, in the danger zone.

All the fun may be for naught though. While the F.A.A. doesn't ban the item, most major airlines do. With this episode sending Knee Defenders into a rumored sales surge, airlines may soon crackdown on a traveler's last remaining means of dissent.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.