The subject is travel, inadequate legroom, airplane passengers lacking good manners, and the airlines looking the other way. So, is it over-the-top to quote Churchill here? Perhaps. Yet, it might similarly be said that Knee Defender™ is the worst ... except for all the others that have been tried.
It all started with our own experience, flying hundreds of thousands of miles on all sorts of planes. Travel with all sorts of people – many who behaved as though etiquette were a foreign concept, even when the flight was domestic.
Then Knee Defender™ was developed and brought to market, and we have since read the same story, in myriad variations, in thousands of e-mails and Internet forum postings. Airline passengers – mostly tall, some not-so-tall. Business travelers typing on their notebook computers. Seniors and others with sensitive, damaged, or replaced knees. Parents with infants and toddlers.
The story? Unannounced, suddenly reclined seatbacks – good manners be damned. Collisions. Near collisions. Bruises. Injuries. Broken computers. Fear, to the point that some refuse to fly again because of deep concerns about being injured.
The most frequently heard counter-proposal to the use of Knee Defender™? Airplane Etiquette. Good Manners. When flying, people should "just ask" the person in front for some accommodation. A "norms of polite society" sort of thing. If only that worked, and it is not for a lack of trying.
Even when prior requests have been made, asking people to refrain, or maybe limit, or at least provide some advance notice before reclining, seatbacks still fly suddenly. Many reclinees are convinced (with apparent good reason) that more than a few recliners apply extra reclining force simply for having been asked for a little consideration. To be sure, many fellow flyers are respectful and responsive, but too many are not.
Let us be clear here. People do not want to buy our product. As a consumer in Colorado commented on an Internet forum about Knee Defenders™:
"They work like a charm. I just hate that I have to use them."
People buy our product only after they have tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed to find some other effective solution. They find some fault with the oblivious recliners and major fault with those who fully know what will result yet insist nonetheless on reclining, but overall they blame the airlines. And, unless they need transportation on a route serviced by Ryanair (whose seats do not recline), they feel abandoned to a DIY solution.
Many of us were taught that one should knock before opening a closed door. If everyone followed that simple rule of courtesy, door latches would not be needed, including the latches on airplane lavatory doors. But many people do not knock first. Recognizing this, the airlines have responded. They print pointed advice directly on the inside panel of lavatory doors that one should bolt the door. Indeed, bolting the door is generally necessary to cause the lights to come on fully. And, while some passengers may abusively stay too long in the lavatory behind its bolted door – whether shaving alone or engaged in some other activity – this does not justify latch-less lavatory doors.
Yet, some still insist that simple, polite requests are effective to stop recliners before any damage is done.
In fact, soon after Knee Defender™ was launched in late 2003, The Mercury News (San Jose, California) became so enfrothed about all of our efforts that it devoted some of its limited editorial page space to write this about our product:
"Goldman's gadget scores high marks for ingenuity but flunks the Miss Manners test for in-flight courtesy."
We were flattered that the newspaper awarded us "high marks for ingenuity" (especially after we saw the dismal scores from the French and Russian judges), but we were troubled by its invocation of Miss Manners, as we have been a fan of hers for more than two decades. We acknowledge that Knee Defender™, on first blush for some, may seem bold, even brash. And users of our product, if simple person-to-person requests were invariably effective when tried, might be fairly considered rude, in a preemption sort of context.
The Mercury News publishes the Miss Manners column, written by Judith Martin. So, before invoking Miss Manners' name to direct its criticism at Knee Defender™ and those who feel compelled to use our product, it might have first consulted the etiquette maven's actual comments about in-flight courtesy in general and reclining one's seat in particular. Two years earlier, when asked by a reader whether it is "rude" merely to ask someone to limit his reclining, Miss Manners had opined as follows:
"There is a rude party here, all right, but it is neither you, for requesting the space in which to eat your dinner, nor the passenger, for assuming that otherwise everyone spends the time tilted back like a row of dominoes.
"The rude party is the airline that puts people in an untenable position, so to speak, and then allows them to blame one another for their discomfort."
That excerpt is from a Miss Manners column published in July, 2001 – two years before the Mercury's editorial.
More recently, when Miss Manners was asked to assess rights and wrongs in seat-reclining conflicts, she reinforced her earlier comments with the following well-targeted words:
"In the etiquette system, as opposed to the legal system, we deal in courtesies, not rights. The polite person tries to negotiate a compromise that will provide some comfort for all ... Reclining the chair only partway, for example.
"The real culprit here is the airlines, who install their seats so closely together that the reasonable attitude of reclining a seat that is designed to recline constitutes a nuisance to the passenger behind.
"However, this deeper problem, of setting minimal comfort standards – or even minimal health conditions – for long-haul flights, is not one that etiquette can solve."
The Miss Manners column from which this latter quote is excerpted was published by the Mercury in October, 2004 – eleven months after the paper's editorial. (That October column, as printed by The Washington Post, can be read here.)
On this subject, we strongly endorse the observations of Mrs. Martin, through her alter ego, Miss Manners, that while etiquette is a crucial component of a well functioning society, mere adherence to it can sometimes prove notably inadequate in a search for a proper solution.
Yet, we want to emphasize that neither of these public figures endorses our product. Furthermore, we are informed that they do not endorse any third-party products or services. For all we know, they think that our product is an abomination, a top candidate for some Courtesy Hall of Shame (or, perhaps, a Discourtesy Hall of Fame).
Then again, there are many bases on which a courtesy maven should find Knee Defender™ to be a reasonable protective device under the real circumstances passengers face today – in which simple, polite requests are often rebuffed. Knee Defender™ is promoted explicitly as a device to be used courteously. Knee Defender™ is adjustable, so that a passenger can use it to help arrange only as much protection as he or she requires. And, in the limited space available to display instructions directly on this small device, we state:
"Knee Defender ... Use only as needed - Do not hog space... Comply with flight attendant's directions. Be polite to fellow passengers."
Additionally, we provide the "Knee Defender™ Courtesy Card™" for our customers to use. The card is designed to be offered to a passenger seated in front of our customer, explaining the situation, indicating that our customer will, if asked, do whatever is practical to allow as much safe reclining as is possible, and urging the forward passenger to "complain to the airline" about the situation. The card closes with the following:
"Maybe working together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers. Thank you for your understanding."
We also offer an alternative "Courtesy Card™" for those who want to try again to seek a safe accommodation without using our product.
As for the Mercury, it saw fit to invoke the name of one of its regular columnists, Miss Manners, to bolster its criticism of our efforts. In order to be responsive to the paper's editorial, to make clear the folly of its opinion, we carefully quote that same columnist with remarks that we read as directly supporting, even if by coincidence, this proposition: If one focuses on anyone but the airlines, one has missed "the real culprit here."
We do sell a product. We are also participating in a debate on passengers' very real concerns about health and safety on commercial aircraft. Beyond all the direct evidence from our customers, we note that "Reclining seats" regularly tops the list of flyers' complaints about in-flight rude behavior – as it did in a poll conducted by USA Today. ("The seat in front of you reclined too far" beat out second-place finisher "Loud, active kids" by almost 2-1.) Estimates are that 75% of passenger-passenger altercations involve seat reclining – including a recent incident in which a woman was hit in the head by a reclining seat and the subsequent fight between her and the recliner resulted in both women being arrested. And, a study commissioned by the British government found that the space between rows typically provided in coach class – the same as offered by most US airlines – does not meet significant health and safety concerns, including by failing to provide "enough space for taller passengers to adopt the ‘brace’ position" in case of an emergency landing.
We believe that continuation of this debate is in the public interest until the airlines provide a safer, healthier environment for all of their passengers, including their long-legged passengers. When they do, the demand for Knee Defenders™ will end. And, in our great capitalist society, then too will end the supply.