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Friday, October 28, 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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  • FireBaron

    I am not going to defend the actions of these idiots, but I am going to offer the following:
    1. Airlines HAVE retired older planes and not replaced them, resulting in fewer units available to meet the flight schedules.
    2. As a result of number 1, airlines have reconfigured the cabins to place more rows of seats (on standard width units) and more seats across (on wide-bodies). This results in less room per passenger.
    3. Because of charges for checked baggage, more people are pushing the limits of what is defined as “hand carry”, and are taking up more room in the overhead bins. Particularly, people seated near the rear of the aircraft tend to put their gear in forward bins, so they don’t have to carry it as far.
    4. Families with small children are not given the opportunity to board early so the kids can be settled in.
    5. Free food and drink have gone away, and what they charge for on-board service makes the airport concessions look inexpensive in comparison.
    All this at a time when most major airlines are touting their profits!

    • charleo1

      That said, I hear Malaysian Airlines is offering a heck of a deal on their Red Eye to Beijing, and vacation getaways to the Netherlands. NBC News used the Airline’s recent collapse in business, since losing two planes in as many months, as a filler before their usual human interest story, they call, “making a difference.” Which also could have been the title of their Malaysian Airline’s piece. The freight in the cargo hold is where the real money is. Or, so I’ve been told. Maybe that’s the reason the experience of flying has for me anyway, turned into one big insult to the psych in the terminal, to the inconvenience to the flight crew, they never let me, the passenger in coach, forget I am.

  • ps0rjl

    I worked in the airline industry as a programmer for 25 years. Believe me I know what these people are saying. It also use to be that we as employees of the airline flew for free or a very reduced fee but we had to fly standby. With increase passenger traffic and reduced airlines/routes good luck with going standby ever again. About 10 years ago the airline I worked for decided to automate their excess baggage charges. Before that the agent had to hand fill a paper to collect the fee and on most flights this fee was ignored. Because we already had all the passenger’s information in the pnr and baggage record, it was just a matter of producing a set of screens to show what the excess charges were and a screen to let them decide how they were going to pay for it. Furthermore it was such a cash cow that we later had to add additional programming to show if an agent waived the fee and why he did it so there would be accountability. As for the revenue, before we instituted the automated excess baggage charges the airline was collecting about $300,00 a year and thought they were losing about another $300,00. After about ten week of the new system the airline realized they would in the first year collect almost $2,000,000, Needless to say it became one of their biggest cash cows. Today the airline industry has consolidated so all those additional flights over the same routes are no longer around. Airlines were notorious for slashing fares to get the other airlines passengers even if it meant flying at a loss. Today with all the mergers, that is a long gone concept.

  • jointerjohn

    Civility and public good manners are at an all-time low. One can see this in any public place or situation. We have made some very important social strides forward in the last fifty years, but personal public behavior is more coarse, self-centered and ugly than before.

  • Blame capitalism for this outrage. If you don’t like the treatment the airlines mete out to their customers, take a train. That’s the way capitalism works. Take it or leave it.

    • charleo1

      Sure! It’s called consolidation. With the global corporate business model, a consumer with cash in hand is becoming as rare as a T Bagger at a Gay Pride convention. And, with more capital in hand than ideas to expand the business. Buying out the competition is no longer considered as cornering the market, or creating a monopoly. Simply increasing market share, for more efficiency. Hate the price? Don’t like the service? Take the train! We own them too. Want to
      complain? Write your Congress member. Or, as we refer to them,
      our associates.

  • pitch1934

    The first shot in the war was when airlines were deregulated. After that it was customer be damned.

    • eps62

      Thank Ronnie Raygun!

  • Lyndon

    Why don’t people just boycott the airlines? Drive instead of flying if at all possible. What ever happened to teleconferencing?