Seats on Spirit Airlines don't recline. Photo by Barb DeLollis.

Seats on Spirit Airlines don’t recline. Photo by Barb DeLollis.

An AP article on Monday highlighted a story behind the diversion of a United Airlines airplane on Sunday, Aug. 21, and the story sounds like the start of a bad joke — only it was real! It goes something like this:

A male airline passenger aboard a United plane clipped a temporary, $22 gadget on the female passenger’s seat in front of him so she couldn’t recline, letting him maintain enough space to work on his laptop with the pull-down table. Both were sitting in premium seats designed with extra leg room.

She asked him to remove the gadget. He didn’t. The two argued. She tossed a cup of water on him. The situation forced the pilot to land in Chicago, where the plane wasn’t scheduled to land. The two were left in Chicago upon takeoff. No arrest was made.

So that was that, right? Wrong!

The incident shed light on a previously little-discussed device – a so-called “Knee Defender” – that the federal government doesn’t regulate but airlines generally ban, according to the AP.

“The Federal Aviation Administration leaves it up to individual airlines to set rules about the device,” the AP reports. “United Airlines said it prohibits use of the device, like all major U.S. airlines. Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air take the reclining mechanisms out of their seats, leaving them permanently upright.”

So this afternoon, as the story spread it has sparked a national discussion about the use of a gadget that prevents people from doing what a piece of tightly regulated equipment – in this case, an airplane seat – is designed to do. CNET weighed in with a good story that asks if the device should be banned on planes, and the CNET reporter contacted the device maker for their comment, but has yet to hear back from them.

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An unscientific survey of Facebook friends who travel quite a bit suggests that the devices will not be welcome by anyone except their owners.

“If it interferes with the intended design/function of any aircraft equipment, it should be banned. If people want more legroom they should pay for an upgraded seat as opposed to maximizing their comfort as the direct result of inhibiting the comfort of another passenger,” said Robert Cole, founder of RockCheetah, the travel technology consulting firm.

“I’m going on CNN International with Richard Quest this afternoon to talk about this. The short version: It’s sabotage. When you ‘break’ another passengers equipment to make yourself more comfortable, you lose the right to complain when others do that to you,” said Spud Hilton, travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Andes Lindström, a spokesman for JetBlue, said he’s been fielding questions all day from reporters about the gadgets. JetBlue does not have a policy about the gadgets but that didn’t prevent JetBlue from talking about them.

“JetBlue offers more legroom and more living space than its competitors. JetBlue does not currently have a policy regarding knee defenders, but we suspect we don’t see similar reports of customer altercations on our flight because our customers don’t feel the need to use knee defenders onboard. We encourage customers to relax and enjoy their JetBlue experience, regardless of what side of the tray table they’re on.”

Readers: What do you think about these devices? Allow them or ban them?