Every cramped air traveler may have the right to lean his seat back, but Ira Goldman sees airplane justice from another perspective -- that of the person behind -- and he's found a way to even the score.
Goldman invented the Knee Defender, a beeper-sized block of plastic that lets passengers prevent the seat in front of them from reclining.
The gadget, which went on sale about a month ago on the Internet for $10, has sparked heated debate in online chat rooms, and aviation officials worry about the disagreements that will be generated at 30,000 feet.
Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the product violated no FAA regulations, so it would be up to individual airlines to prohibit it.
Northwest Airlines said it would ban the Knee Defender from all flights. Other carriers, such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, acknowledged concerns about safety -- not to mention the comfort of passengers who want to recline -- but are still figuring out what to do.
The safety concerns stem from the design because the Knee Defender works only when the tray table is down. The hard plastic block, which has an inch-wide groove down the middle, fits around the arm of a tray table and acts as a barrier to the seat's backward movement.
"We have tested this product on several seat types and find that when installed, should someone try to force the seat to recline, the tray table assembly can break," said Mary Stanik, a Northwest spokeswoman. "If the seat is damaged, including the tray table, in flight, it may adversely affect passenger evacuation in the event of an emergency."
Goldman said he would stop selling the product if the airlines prove it unsafe, but so far he's unmoved by their arguments. The 50-year-old Washington, D.C., resident, who's 6-foot-4, said he didn't invent Knee Defender so fliers would be able to "hog scarce space," but rather for the physical well-being of tall travelers like him.
"If I hadn't been bashed in the knees over and over again, this wouldn't have been invented," said Goldman, who estimated that nearly 1,000 Knee Defenders had been ordered. At the very least, he said, the device could be a useful "early warning system" for tall passengers or those using laptops, enabling them to ask the person in front not to recline.
"Be polite to fellow passengers," says a sticker affixed to each Knee Defender.
Kevin Gross of San Francisco, who ordered a Knee Defender but hasn't yet used it, said he would immediately remove the device if asked to by a passenger or flight attendant. But Gross is betting it'll go undetected in most cases, since travelers will just assume the seat is busted and not make a fuss.
Don't count on Dan Hammer, 50, of White Plains, N.Y., to be so docile: "If I saw somebody that put the Knee Defender on the seat behind me so that I can't go back, I'll be very upset."
That's just the kind of high dudgeon that worries Dawn Deeks, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants. After all, flight attendants already often ask passengers not to lean back too far, and they would be the ones to police any disputes.
To Deeks, the Knee Defender is "an insensitive knee-jerk reaction to insensitive people" that would only inflame tempers.