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The decline of recline

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWho moved my Knees? Self-help for frazzled frequent flyers and precious millimetres saved aloft. The battle is on.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Packed Indian train - forget knee room

Forget about knees and elbows here and hold on tight

KNEES. Ever thought about them? We talk about sloe-eyed sirens, silicon-cushion lips, and dreamy hands. What about knees? Who ever said, my girlfriend has great knees? These are a snoring-boring part of the anatomy – akin to a dull door hinge – best left where they belong, under the table, well hidden behind creased linen. Well, they bend. They straighten. I never think about them. But, crammed into coach class 30,000ft aloft, you will suddenly become acutely aware of every square millimetre of this discrete bend in the legs.

The fight is on to defend those pivotal condylar joints, not from arthritis, but from sozzled sardine suits who insist on thrusting their seats back so far their heads are almost resting in your lap. This pious ‘La Pieta’ ensemble is blissful for the reclinee, less so for the reclined-upon, and weighty tomes have been written about miracle millimetres when it comes to finding – and holding – knee room in modern aircraft where every centimetre ceded is viewed as a commercial calamity by the carrier, and DVT-free triumph by gritty travellers who have chosen to fight back.

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The airborne insurrection has spiralled. Knees have been saved, backs forced upright, lines drawn, water thrown, coffee spilled, knitting tossed, and flights diverted. It’s a lot of lost time for passengers and police, and lost revenues on fuel and missed connections for the carriers. In the ‘Land of the Knee and the Home of the Brave’, the right to recline row has disrupted transcontinental flights and even a Miami-Paris run that was diverted to Boston where a French passenger was charged with ‘interfering’ with the flight crew, a federal offence that can carry a jail term of 20 years in prison.

At the root of all this argle-bargle is a tiny gadget called the ‘Knee Defender’. This humble highflying hero lives up to its name and does exactly that. Invented for tall passengers and those who may wish to keep their laptops flipped open, the Knee Defender is a set of two small clamps that fit on either side of the table and effectively prevent the seat in front from squashing your svelte MacBook Air. The clamps can be adjusted to manage the level of recline permitted.

So what’s the fuss? Well, passengers pay not just for leg room but for recline. Having measured your seat recline, in degrees or inches, you settle in for a snooze, hit the recline button and… nothing happens. A passenger buys an airline product based on particular specifications and if those specifications don’t apply, someone is at fault. But who?

{I was catapulted upright like someone had hit the eject button on the James Bond Aston Martin. I settled back. A few seconds later I was rudely upright again

Some passengers say reclining seats should be done away with altogether. Many airlines have taken this view into consideration while fashioning diabolical shell seats where the seat back remains upright but the seat itself slides ‘under’ the row in front creating an angled recline. ‘Uncomfortable,’ travellers retort. Some airlines like United, Air Canada, Qantas and Virgin Australia have supposedly banned the Knee Defender and a few have singled out the device for particular vitriol on their websites. The FAA is meanwhile undecided as the defender does not impact on passenger or aircraft safety. What about large clothespins? They could defend knees equally admirably.

There are other ways to save your knees – and avert DVT – through sharp aerobic exercise in-flight. On a flight from Hong Kong to Seoul some time ago, I hit the recline button and sighed as the seat whispered backwards. Seconds later I was catapulted upright like someone had hit the eject button of the James Bond Aston Martin. I pressed the button again and settled back into recline. A few seconds later I was rudely upright again as if a truck has slammed into me from behind. I peered at the passengers behind me – a row of gold-toothed farmers, sturdy, smiling, and unyielding. They wanted their space and they took it while I simpered helplessly in my seat.

Then there’s Premium Economy, Business, and First where Knee Defenders would be archaic relics of a past life. But until you get there, there is one more tried and true method. Don’t fly. Defend your knees and coddle them by staying in bed. Who knows what’s next – the ‘Elbow Enhancer,’ the ‘Shoulder Shouter,’ the ‘Butt Buttress’? It’s a tense world up there folks. Forget about recline and focus on airborne alliteration.

Some examples of the Web chatter on this subject. Against: “I hope I see that person again outside of the airport. I will teach him/her a lesson so that they learn that the world does not revolve around them.”

For: “I’m not sure if anyone noticed, but all the people that are against this product are people that are ready to beat you up if you have a problem with their seat in your face. These people are why seats should not recline, period.”

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