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Friday, December 9, 2016

Because nothing important is going on in the world right now, America is engaged in a fevered debate about airplane seats.

Is there a God-given right to recline, even if it impinges on the kneecaps of the person seated behind you?

Three recent in-air disputes have resulted in commercial flights being rerouted for unscheduled landings, and feuding passengers booted off. This trend, if it continues, can only add more thrills to the already hectic air travel experience.

The first and most publicized case involved the use of a device called a “Knee Defender,” which sounds like something you’d find at an adult novelty store. Actually it’s a pair of plastic clips that lock onto the tray table at your seat, preventing the person in front of you from leaning back.

A man on a United flight from Newark to Denver installed a Knee Defender, igniting an argument with the woman in front of him. According to the Associated Press, she threw a drink at the man.

The pilot diverted to Chicago, where both passengers were removed. Later, the deployer of the Knee Defender, James Beach, said he was “pretty ashamed” of what had happened, and sorry for the harsh words he’d unleashed on flight attendants.

Across the cyber world, however, sympathetic passengers have rallied to Beach’s defense. Others have sided with the woman with whom he quarreled, asserting that anyone who buys a ticket for a reclining seat has a right to lean back in it.

Soon afterward, a flight from Paris to Miami was diverted after an altercation over seat-reclining etiquette. Then a Delta flight from New York to West Palm Beach was rerouted to Jacksonville for the same stupefying reason.

Friction among cramped airline travelers has been going for decades, but only now has it erupted into incidents that actually disrupt (and interrupt) flights. This can best be explained in evolutionary terms, the human race obviously in a fast backwards slide toward the primal ooze.

Available online for $21.95, Knee Defender is marketed for tall men and women to “defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be ‘back there.’ ”

A call to battle! Defend yourself against a faceless enemy!

Of course the true enemy is the airline industry and its sardine-can engineering of passenger cabins. Rather than redesign the rows for more comfort, carriers now exploit customer misery by charging extra for seats with slightly more leg room.

It’s no wonder that portable hardware such as Knee Defender has caught on.

In past days, a tall person seated in 12-C had only a few defensive options when the stranger in 11-C dropped his headrest on your legs.

One effective tactic was a deep hacking cough, followed by a murmured, “God, I hope it’s not pneumonia again.”

That usually produced a reaction known as the reverse jack-in-the-box, a swift and complete withdrawal by the encroaching passenger.

Another old standby, when confronted with the unwanted intimacy of a rude recliner, was to fake an attack of airsickness.

“Honey, where’s the vomit bag? Hurry!” you might cry, while fumbling dramatically in the seat pocket.

Almost always the prone offender would launch himself forward, frantically seeking to remove himself from the likely spray pattern.

No such theatrics are necessary in the era of Knee Defenders. Once those clasps are secured on the hinge of the tray table, your territory is boldly established.

For customers leery of the gadget’s passive-aggressive intent, the manufacturers extol a bonus medical benefit: Protection against blood clots.

They say Knee Defender helps you “keep the airplane legroom space you need to do in-seat exercises” such as foot lifts, which can prevent a dangerous clotting condition called deep vein thrombosis.

True or not, that’s savvy marketing. There’s no guarantee that the passenger in front of you will buy the line about the blood clots, so you still might end up with a drink in your face.

With mayhem and hatred boiling all over the globe, you wouldn’t think we’d be looking for something else to fight about, particularly at 32,000 feet. A scientific argument could be made that no truly advanced species would need a Knee Defender.

Charles Darwin would be depressed, but not as depressed as everyone flying in coach.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

Photo: Douglas P. Perkins via Wikimedia Commons

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