As airlines pack more people onto planes, travelers are saying no to fellow passengers using gadgets like the Knee Defender to keep others from reclining their seats.
That’s the opinion of 56 percent of respondents to the quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll of investors, traders and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers, which asked them whether fliers should be able to protect their space by deploying a device that infringes on another’s comfort.
Developed by a Washington-based entrepreneur, the Knee Defender made headlines in August when a United Airlines passenger discovered the man behind her had secretly installed it to keep her seat from leaning back into him. In the melee that followed, the woman dumped water on the gadget user and the pilot made an unscheduled landing. Knee Defender sales surged.
More on the Knee Defender: Majority of Americans Are Against Using Knee Defenders on Airline Flights
“That seat is yours for the flight,” said poll respondent Gene Palma, 65, a municipal-bond salesman for First Southwest Co. in Dallas who flies at least once a month. “One of the things that goes with the seat is that little button and the ability to put your seat back.”
The Knee Defender got a similarly frosty reception by many others who responded to the poll, which was conducted Nov. 11-12 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. Of 510 poll respondents, only 27 percent said passengers should be allowed to use such devices, while 17 percent weren’t sure. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The results didn’t faze the Knee Defender’s inventor, Ira Goldman.
“The fact that 27 percent say it should be allowed and 17 percent are not sure, to me is pretty good,” Goldman said today in a telephone interview.
Air travelers across North America are more likely to feel hemmed in these days, as airlines work to maintain pricing power by shrinking the number of available seats. The industry filled an average of 80.1 percent of available seats in the third quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence, up from 66.3 percent in the same period in 2005.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope, right?” said Itay Vinik, 29, a portfolio manager at United Global Advisors LLC in Beverly Hills, California. “Everyone’s going to get it and then no one will be able to enjoy their flight.”
Vinik, who flies at least every couple of months and has felt uncomfortably squeezed, said he is opposed to the Knee Defender and wouldn’t use one unless everyone did. “Then I kind of wouldn’t have a choice,” he said by telephone.
Endorsing the gadget was Alan Schlesinger, 67, of Great Neck, New York. On one flight, a man in front of Schlesinger leaned back and “was literally sleeping in my face.” The Knee Defender is an “appropriate defense system” for people in his situation, Schlesinger said in a telephone interview.
“In my case, I have two hip replacements,” said Schlesinger, who owns Alchemy Management LLC. “If I’m on a plane where I cannot get appropriate space, I’m forced to get into an uncomfortable position.”
The Knee Defender is a pair of U-shaped clips that fit over the arms of an airline tray table, preventing the person in the seat ahead from reclining. It retails for $21.95, according to the website Gadgetduck.com, operated by the 6-foot-3 (1.9-meter) Goldman.
Goldman dreamed up the Knee Defender around 1998 while flying. He noticed that he could block the passenger ahead of him from reclining by laying an umbrella across the arms of his tray table. He shelved the idea for a few years and eventually started tinkering with it again at the urging of friends.
The Knee Defender went on the market in 2003, Goldman said in an August interview. Demand for the product after the United dustup was so great that it temporarily knocked his website offline, Goldman said then. Sales tapered off over time, but are still higher than they were at this time last year. That’s a sign that people haven’t been put off by the controversy, Goldman said today.
Any U.S. buyers may have to install them on the sly. The four biggest U.S. carriers — American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United, Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. — all bar the use of the device, spokesmen said in August.
While Palma and Schlesinger came down on different sides of the Knee Defender’s deployment, both faulted airlines’ moves to cram more people into economy.
Southwest, United and Delta are among the airlines installing “slimline” seats, whose lack of extra padding lets carriers squeeze in an extra row or two into the same size cabin. Airlines say the seats are engineered so that passengers don’t lose any legroom.
In July, Boeing Co. announced a plan for a new variant of its 737 jet that will add 11 more seats in coach. Low-fare operator Spirit Airlines Inc. has non-reclining seats with a “pitch” — the distance from one seat to the same spot on the seat in front of it — of 28 inches. That’s 2 to 3 inches less than industry standard.
“People are so friggin’ rude and impatient,” Palma said by phone. “But on the other hand these airlines have basically stuffed the seats in so friggin’ tight that I guess it becomes a problem.”
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