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Mid-air dispute over Knee Defender gadget gets passengers kicked off United flight

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You know how it is. You board the plane, settle into your seat, make yourself nice and comfortable. And then, 10 minutes after take off, this happens: The person in front of you whacks their seat back, right back, so their head is virtually in your lap. As you crane your neck awkwardly in a bid to catch a glimpse of the kinder world below, you see your reflection in the window, all wide eyes and gritted teeth. It’s going to be a long flight.

Of course, there are several possible solutions. If you can get your arms out from beneath the back of the seat, you could tap the offending passenger on the shoulder and politely ask them to move their goddamn seat up a few inches to allow you to, y’know, breathe. The only drawback with such a move is that it risks an altercation that could, in a worst-case scenario, result in your head becoming wedged firmly inside the plane’s toilet, though admittedly you might find this position to be more comfortable than the one you were in a few minutes earlier.

Knee Defender

imageAlternatively, there’s the Knee Defender, a small $22 gadget that attaches to your tray table, cleverly preventing the reclining mechanism of the seat in front from engaging. Perfect, eh? Discreet and non-confrontational, right? Er, wrong, as a passenger on a recent United Airlines passenger discovered this week.

According to reports, a 48-year-old male passenger used the gadget on a flight from Newark to Denver, primarily because he needed the space to work on his laptop.

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As the flight got underway, the woman in front realized she couldn’t push her seat back so she called a flight attendant. The attendant noticed the Knee Defender and, informing the man that the airline didn’t allow the use of such gadgets, asked him to remove it. Here’s where things got messy.


The man refused to cooperate, so the female passenger, also 48, threw a glass of water over him. With tempers flaring, the pilot took the decision to divert the plane to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where both passengers were removed from the flight. The plane continued on to Denver, arriving just over 90 minutes late.

Knee Defender, which has been preventing airline seats from reclining for the last 11 years, does not break any Federal Aviation Administration rules but has been banned by a number of carriers.

Courtesy card

The controversial device comes with a courtesy card that you can, if you wish, place on the seat in front of you when you board. The message begins: “I have provided you with this card because I have long legs and if you recline your seat you will bang into my knees.”

It seems the man on the United flight failed to employ the use of the courtesy card.

On a Q&A page on the gadget’s website, the question “What should I do if a flight attendant tells me not to use my Knee Defender?” comes with the answer: “If a flight attendant instructs you to stop using it – even if you believe that these instructions are unreasonable – you must always follow the flight attendant’s instructions” – advice the male passenger would have been wise to follow had he wanted to reach his destination on time.

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