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 told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I could have handled it so much better.”
Beach, 48, reached out to the AP 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.
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 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.”
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 says 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.