August 31, 2014
THE KNEE DEFENDER is back in the news again. That’s the guerilla comfort device that, when surreptitiously inserted in the crook of the seat in front of you, prevents said seat from reclining.
The Knee Defender has been around for a decade, and the whole to-recline-or-not-to-recline debate is at least as old, but a pair of recent in-flight altercations has re-heated the controversy, spawning a slew of rants, op-eds and blog posts on economy class etiquette.
What do I think? I think the ground rules are, or should be, pretty simple: If a seat has a recline function, you are within your rights to use it — to a point. Your right to recline does not preclude you from exercising basic courtesy and politeness. If there’s nobody behind you, recline away. If there is somebody behind you, perhaps ask if he or she minds you coming back an inch or two. If the person is unusually large or tall, then be a good sport and keep your seat upright.
And if and when you do recline, please do it slowly so that you don’t spill the person’s beverage, break his kneecaps or crush his laptop. I can’t believe that more computers aren’t destroyed from being pinched between between the tray table and seat-back. “Assault recliners” is my term for those passengers who come hauling back at full speed with no warning, leaving you but a split-second to save your laptop from this deadly nutcracker, and/or upending your coffee.
Several airlines — Cathay Pacific is one — have avoided the problem altogether by installing shell-style seats in which, rather than tipping backwards, the seat pan slides forward, so that even when fully reclined they do not interfere with the space behind you. It’s a nice idea, but many passengers, me among them, find these seats uncomfortable.
As to the Knee Defender device product, it’s hard to justify the thing. As one frequent flyer puts it, “It’s a device designed to force your opinion upon others without any discussion and without compromise. It leads to nothing except confrontation and aggression, and that’s the last type of behavior you want to encourage in a cramped stuffy environment like economy class.”
Cramped and stuffy for sure. But how cramped?
Conventional wisdom holds that the typical economy section is tighter than ever before, with airlines cramming in ever more seats. This is something of a myth. The spacing between rows is called “pitch” in the biz. Measured in inches, it’s the distance from one seat-back to the seat-back ahead of it. While it’s true that carriers have been tightening up the rear-most rows to accommodate those roomier (and more expensive) “economy plus” sections up front, row spacing hasn’t that much over the past two or three decades. JetBlue’s 34-inch standard is currently the most generous among US majors, where the average is 31-32 inches. On Spirit Airlines’ Airbus A320s, it’s a very tight 28. Some are better than others, but those are roughly the same numbers you would have seen 20-30 years ago, varying slightly carrier to carrier.
Anyone who flew the old PeoplExpress remembers how pitiless and pitchless a cabin can be. Or Laker Airways, whose “SkyTrain” service ran between the US and London in the 1970s. Sir Freddie Laker, the airline’s flamboyant founder, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crunching 345 seats — about a hundred more than the typical DC-10 at the time.
If anything, the average cabin is slightly roomier than it used to be. Legroom is roughly the same, while the cabin overall is wider and taller. The Airbus A380, for example, has the same ten-across floor plan as the 747, but is wider by approximately a foot, while six-abreast aircraft such as the popular A320 have a few more inches of head and elbow room than the 707s and 727s of old. And airlines have been moving to “slimline” seats with a thinner construction that in effect increases pitch by up to three inches per row. And for the record, airlines cannot simply wedge in as many seats as they want. There are restrictions based on the number of emergency exits (as well as the number flight attendants), and most carriers are fairly close to this limit as it stands.
If ever you’ve wondered how it is that airlines can so easily tinker with pitch, check out the floor the next time you fly. You’ll notice the seats are on rails. The hardware is usually covered with plastic caps, but you can see how a row can be slid forward or aft with a minimum of fuss.Economy class seats appear to be cheap and flimsy, but in fact they have to meet all sorts of safety criteria, including G-load limitations. The attachment points on those floor tracks are exceptionally strong.