Late last month, an obscure device called the "Knee Defender" suddenly became the subject of surging media attention -- and consumer interest. This $22 piece of plastic, which clips onto an airplane tray table and prevents the seat in front of you from reclining, spurred a confrontation on a United Continental flight that forced a flight diversion.
This incident has spurred a wave of arguments about which passenger really has the "right" to the space where a seat reclines. Some people believe that it's acceptable to recline your seat as far as it goes, while others argue that doing so is rude.
While this debate goes on in the media, airlines have spoken almost unanimously by banning the Knee Defender. This shouldn't be much of a surprise. After all, if they didn't want passengers to recline, they wouldn't have installed reclining seats in the first place!
Airlines won't defend the "Knee Defender"
Almost all of the major U.S. airlines have banned the Knee Defender. Many international carriers have explicitly banned it too, including Air Canada, WestJet, Qantas, and Virgin Australia.
The united front against the Knee Defender among airlines is very understandable. At the most basic level, using the device risks damaging the plane, particularly if a passenger tries to forcibly recline his or her seat while a Knee Defender is installed behind it.
In any case, Knee Defender advocates face a thorny problem. If airlines thought it was wrong for passengers to recline their seats, why would they install reclining seats in the first place? It would almost certainly be cheaper to buy seats that are fixed in the upright position.
Indeed, most ultra-low cost carriers, including Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Travel have seats that do not recline or are frozen in a "pre-reclined" position.
In the wake of the great Knee Defender debate, some people have opined that maybe Spirit and Allegiant got things right. In order to avoid the potential for conflict between passengers, perhaps airlines should eliminate the reclining function altogether.
This seems overly punitive to passengers who find it more comfortable to rest in a reclining position. While incidents of "air rage" appear to be on the rise, most Americans still seem to be capable of getting along, even when they disagree about the morality of reclining one's seat.
Personally, I rarely recline my seat, and I do sometimes get annoyed when the passenger in front of me spends the entire flight in the reclining position -- but I grin and bear it. (That said, one of the few advantages of being 5'6" is that my knees are never in danger.) In any case, mature adults should be able to resolve these disagreements through polite conversation rather than screaming and throwing drinks.
There's another way
In the long run, airlines have a better way to resolve this thorny problem than to ban the Knee Defender or eliminate the reclining function. It's something called an articulating seat pan.
In a typical reclining airline seat (at least in the coach cabin), the bottom of the seat is fixed in place and the seat back angles backward when the passenger reclines.
By contrast, with an articulating seat pan, the bottom of the seat moves forward when the passenger reclines. This means that passengers can recline further without infringing as much on the person sitting in the next row.
Since an articulating seat pan moves forward when you recline, reclining leaves you with less legroom. Each passenger must choose between more legroom and more recline, rather than getting to recline at somebody else's expense.
A few airplane seat manufacturers have begun offering articulating seat pans as an option. Some airlines, including American Airlines, have begun installing these seats. Broader adoption of articulating seat pans by U.S. airlines may be the only feasible way to let U.S. air travelers recline their seats without sparking in-flight riots.
Foolish final thoughts
Many pundits have weighed in about the sense of entitlement that has sparked some of the recent scuffles over reclining airplane seats. It's certainly true that if passengers showed each other a little more common courtesy, airlines wouldn't have to worry about the Knee Defender.
Unfortunately, wishing for a kinder world won't make it so. For now, airlines need to adjudicate between the rival claims of the pro-recliners and anti-recliners. The vast majority of the industry has come down on the side of those who want the right to recline their seats.
However, in the long run, airlines may be better off making the debate moot by installing new seats with articulating seat pans. These seats will allow customers to choose the seat position that is most comfortable for them without drastically impacting the comfort of other passengers.
Adam Levine-Weinberg is short shares of United Continental Holdings. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.