NEW YORK — The businessman whose dispute with a fellow airline passenger over a reclined seat sparked a national debate about air-travel etiquette says he’s embarrassed by the way the confrontation unfolded and regrets his behavior.
But don’t expect James Beach to stop using the Knee Defender, a $22 gadget that attaches to a passenger’s tray table and prevents the person in front from reclining. He just plans to be nicer about it.
“I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened,” Beach said Wednesday. “I could have handled it so much better.”
The argument became so tense that the pilots of the Aug. 24 fight diverted the Boeing 737 to Chicago. A story about the incident started a broad public discussion of whether passengers should be allowed to recline. In the days that followed, two other flights were diverted because of similar disagreements.
Beach, 48, reached out to clarify a few things about the episode, primarily that he initially complied with flight attendant instructions to remove the device.
For the record, he said, he never reclines his seat.
“You have the right, but it seems rude to do it,” said Beach, who is 6-foot-1.
The dispute occurred on the final leg of Beach’s trip back to his home near Denver. After returning to the U.S. from a business trip to Moscow, he went on standby for an earlier flight for the leg from Newark, New Jersey, to Denver and was given a middle seat. When the jet was airborne, Beach took out his laptop to review a contract for his company, which develops waste recycling facilities, primarily in Russia. He used the Knee Defender — a Christmas gift a few years ago from his wife — to prevent the woman in front from reclining.
U.S. airlines prohibit use of the Knee Defender, but the devices are not illegal.
“I put them in maybe a third of the time. Usually, the person in front tries (to recline) their seat a couple of times, and then they forget about it,” Beach said. The device comes with a courtesy card to tell passengers that you’ve blocked them, but he doesn’t use it.
“I’d rather just kind of let them think the seat is broken, rather than start a confrontation,” he said.
Beach, who said he flies 75,000 to 100,000 miles a year, wasn’t so lucky this time.
When the flight attendants came through the cabin to serve beverages, the woman said her seat was broken. That’s when Beach told one of them about the Knee Defender. The flight attendant asked him to remove the device, and Beach said he did.
“As soon as I started to move it, she just full force, blasted the seat back, right on the laptop, almost shattered the screen. My laptop came flying onto my lap,” he said.
Beach complained, saying that he couldn’t work like that, but the flight attendant informed him that the woman had the right to recline. Both passengers were sitting in United’s Economy Plus section, which offers 4 more inches of legroom than the rest of coach.
His reply: “You asked me to let her recline a few inches, and she just took 100 percent of it.”
That’s when Beach’s anger boiled over. He said he pushed the woman’s seat forward and put the Knee Defender back in. The woman stood up and threw a cup of soda — not water, as previously reported — at him.
“It was really just surreal and shocking. Did that just happen?” Beach recalls. “I said, ‘I hope you brought your checkbook because you just threw your Sprite all over my $2,000 laptop.”’
The flight attendant stepped in quickly and moved the woman to another seat.
“I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have said to the flight attendant: some bad words, what’s your name and ‘I can’t believe you’re treating me like this,’ ” he recalled.
The pilots then changed course for Chicago — a decision that Beach said “amazed” him.
“The plane was dead quiet for the rest of that flight,” he added. “Nobody said a word.”
Ira Goldman, who invented the Knee Defender, said the passengers on the other diverted flights got upset after their knees and head were hit by reclining seats. He said airlines are “trying to wish this problem away.”
His solution: Install seats that slide forward within a shell to recline or to allow the use of his device, which has been sold since 2003.
“They’re selling the same space twice — to me to sit down and then inviting people to put their seat backs there as well,” he said.
When the plane landed in Chicago, police escorted Beach and the woman off. Neither police, nor the airline or the Transportation Security Administration has released any information about the passenger seated in front of Beach.
No criminal or civil charges were brought against them, but United would not let them continue on to Denver.
Beach said he spent the night at an airport hotel and then caught a flight home the next morning. He flew Spirit Airlines. It has no reclining seats.