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Tool to stop plane seat reclining is no knee jerk reaction

October 28, 2003


To talk to him, Ira Goldman doesn't sound like a troublemaker, but he sure is getting people riled up.

Maybe the truth is that they already were riled up, and Goldman has just provided the flashpoint.

Goldman, if you haven't heard of him, is the inventor of the Knee Defender, a new device that blocks airplane seats from reclining.

This has made Goldman a hero to tall guys who hate it when the airline passenger in front of them smashes their knees with the seat. But it has aroused the ire of a probably larger group of passengers out there who aren't about to let anybody encroach on their "right to recline."

With life in economy class already near the breaking point these days, Goldman's product is a little like taking a blow torch to the California underbrush.

But since I don't fly that often, all I can say is: Go get 'em, Ira!

I'm one of those tall guys, and while I'm rarely on a plane more than two to four times a year, I've never understood why the airlines allow the passenger in front of me to bludgeon my knees on his way to reclining his seat into my lap so that I can get a better view of how he parts his hair.

Before I talked to Goldman on Monday, I was unfamiliar with the right to recline, although I obviously was aware that reclining is part of the flying routine of many passengers, many of whom seem genuinely surprised when, after several minutes of trying to jam their seat back, they turn around and see my knees resting firmly against it. Saying "ouch" loudly never seems to have an effect.

Goldman, 50, used to log 50,000-60,000 miles flying per year as an aide to Pete Wilson, formerly California's governor and U.S. senator. Goldman also had worked as an aide to former North Shore congressman Robert McClory.

During his travels, Goldman, who is 6-foot-3 like yours truly, noticed that if he jammed an object between the tray table and the seat in front of him while the tray was down, the seat couldn't recline.

Goldman now manufactures a small white plastic device specially designed to do the trick. Goldman, who still lives in Washington, is devoting full-time attention to his invention, which he is selling over the Internet for $10.

While sales have been brisk of late, he shouldn't plan on getting rich from this.

According to an Associated Press story, the Federal Aviation Administration discourages people from using anything that would "alter the performance of any part of an airplane," and Northwest Airlines has already said it will ban the Knee Defender.

In the meantime, though, Goldman has unleashed a torrent of e-mail and letters from friends and foes.

"People say I've been waiting 25 years for this. Where were you when I started flying?" Goldman says.

But others who count on reclining the seat and going to sleep have threatened bodily injury to anybody who tries to use it.

As Goldman sees it, their position could best be summed up as: "If God hadn't wanted seats that recline, he wouldn't have made seats that recline."

Flight attendants have written Goldman imploring him to drop the product before he makes their lives any more complicated.

Over the years, tall people have developed their own systems of fighting back on airplanes.

The simplest, of course, is bouncing the seat in front with your knee. Some prefer to think of it as providing the passenger in the forward seat with "significant lumbar support," says Goldman. But that's just asking for a fight.

Other suggestions include coughing or sneezing on the head of the person who reclines into your face at meal time.

But I can't wait to try this one: aiming your air vent at the back of their head. They say it works.

Goldman said he doesn't mind that others are now coming up with their own methods of blocking the seat from reclining, such as using the airline-issued blanket in place of his device.

The best solution of all, he said, would be for the airlines to stop cramming their passengers into too small a space, or at least to acknowledge that they are doing so and take steps to deal with the problems it creates for tall passengers, such as asking everybody to check with the person behind them before reclining.

Until then, Goldman says, "this product is filling a need."

He is particularly amused by comments from the airlines that if somebody forces their seat back while the Knee Defender is in place, it might break the tray table. Goldman asks why the airlines aren't as concerned about the same amount of pressure being exerted against somebody's knees.

He discourages shorter folks from using the Knee Defender just to give themselves more space.

"Knee Defender was not developed so that people can hog scarce space on an airplane when they don't truly need it," says his Web site.

I think anybody should be able to use it, as long as they don't recline their own seat.

Goldman's motto: "Standing up for the right of the tall guy to sit down."

I'd never heard of that right either, but I like it.


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