The so-called Knee Defender has been around for some time and many newspapers have covered it – focusing more on the controversial aspect of actually preventing the passenger in front from reclining their seat. But few have actually written about it after having tested it. So we wanted to cover it in-depth.
According to their website, the curiously-named manufacturer Gadget Duck claims that the Knee Defender helps you 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”.
Apparently, USA Today called it a “must-have travel gadget”.
The design is actually ingenious. Each ‘defender’ measures about 4cm by 5cm, weighs just 32g and has a very solid and robust feel. It simply slots over the fold-down tray table extension arm. It’s then wedged as far up against the seatback in front as possible. You see, the mechanism that allows economy class airline seats to recline moves independent of, and in-between, the fold-out tray table frame and extension arms. If it didn’t, every time someone in front of you reclined their seat, the tray table would also extend and just about cut you in two above the waist.
The Knee Defender acts as a wedge in-between the back of the seat and the fold-out tray table frame, meaning that when the person in front tries to recline, the seatback is blocked by the device that itself is using the tray table frame as leverage. Plus, the Knee Defender is intelligently painted roughly the same colour as the tray table framework, so from a distance it blends into the background making it difficult for a member of the cabin crew to spot.
Now, the big question, why would you use it? Well, it purely comes down to whether you have scruples. But, if you travel in economy class enough, it is possible to lose any remaining shred of ethical decency you might have left and soon you’ll find yourself sliding down that slippery slope, embracing the ideology that it’s an unforgiving, dog-eat-dog world out there in coach. If this is already the case, then the Knee Defender is for you.
Aside from the obvious little bit of leg room that’s successfully retained, in our opinion the biggest advantage is that this makes it possible to use a laptop comfortably, without having to try and look at a half-closed screen and slide half down under the seat in front. You’ll find this is the case in many economy class seats, from Virgin to Etihad to Air New Zealand. The Gadget Duck website does lay it on quite thick about the advantages of more leg room, referring to DVT and so on. Maybe this is an attempt to appease their conscience and justify selling it.
According to the website, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was asked about the use of Knee Defenders, and as reported in the October 28, 2003 edition of the Washington Post: “FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said the clips were not against federal aviation rules as long as they weren’t used during taxiing, takeoffs or landings.”
The Knee Defender cannot be used unless your tray table is actually down. So, that’s fine if you want to watch a movie on your laptop or do some work, but should you remove the device in order to put your tray table away, the person in front might then recline his or her seat. And that fits in nicely with what the FAA says.
But of course, everyone is entitled to recline their seat, so unfortunately that “faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care about anything else that might be back there” is well within his or her rights. However, it’s always polite to lean around and just double check with the person behind before you do, something not enough people do.
So, how well does it work? In a seven-hour, trans-Atlantic flight from London LHR to New York JFK we tested it, in economy class on a British Airways 747-400. The results were, we’re ashamed to say, hilarious. We were located in seat 46B, which is one of three down the left hand side of the aircraft. The flight was pretty full and the three seats in front were also all taken. Soon after take off, once the seatbelt sign was off, we lowered the tray table and put the two reinforced rubber grips in place, ready to undertake a little work on the laptop and perhaps even watch a few episodes of Modern Family that had been saved specifically for this journey.
It was only when the two friends either side of Passenger 45B reclined their seats and he tried to do the same, did it become clear how effective this simple device was. Poor Passenger 45B tried and tried, showing to his friends that pushing the little button in the armrest and pushing back as hard as he could in his seat simply wasn’t working for some reason. He begrudgingly gave up and just assumed his seat was faulty.
We’re not particularly proud of this…but it was all done in the name of research, of course. And yes, OK, we laughed a little bit too. But that was totally down to the fact that no one expected this thing to work, let alone as well as it did. It goes without saying that we later admitted to, and then repented, this sin at the first confessional we could find after landing.
But, with the Knee Defender in place, you can open up a laptop as much as you need, safe in the knowledge that the seat won’t in front won’t suddenly come crashing down and break your screen in two.
The Gadget Duck website also has a link to etiquette on a plane section, where it goes into an inordinate amount of explanation and justification about using the device. It even offers what they call a “Knee Defender Courtesy Card” for their customers to use.
According to the site, 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.”
However, we’re not convinced that this will change decades of profit-driven policy or interior aircraft design implemented by the world’s biggest airlines.
The Knee Defenders, should you feel inclined to purchase them, are available for $17.95 per pair from the Gadget Duck website.
Alternatively, you could follow the apparent advice of Microsoft product manager and frequent flier Angus Logan, who believes that, when flying: “When the person in front reclines your productivity declines.”
He wedges a water bottle between his tray table and the seat ahead of him to prevent the person in that seat from reclining. This suggestion, apparently from his blog, appears on all sorts of websites, but sadly the blog itself no longer appears on the web is the way it obviously once did, so all the links to this article are out of date and dead. However, we’ll test this particular solution at our very next opportunity.
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