A family claims to have been thrown off a United Airlines flight for complaining about the in-flight movie. The Atlantic prints their letter here, but my executive summary is below–
- Legacy United crew / A230 / DEN-BWI / 02 Feb 2013
- Parents of 4- and 8-year old onboard object to Alex Cross movie being played on overhead drop-down monitors
- Movie is rated PG-13 and contains sex and violence, though it is not clear how much UA edited the onboard version
- Parents ask a FA to stop playing movie or at least close the monitor above their seats
- FA refuses, stating it is technically impossible to close one monitor and it would be unfair to other passengers nearby
- Other passengers chime in, agreeing movie is inappropriate for children
- Purser is summoned, agrees that content is not appropriate for young children, but refuses to intervene
- Parents ask if captain has the final authority to address the issue, but purser ignores question
- Parents ask for name of captain, purser refuses to provide it
- One hour later, captain announces flight will divert to Chicago over “security concerns”
- Police officer boards plane in Chicago, approaches parents, asks them to gather their belongings and disembark
- Outside aircraft, parents met by UA management and FBI
- Parents quickly cleared and placed on next flight to Baltimore, but refused reboarding on now delayed original flight
- Everyone involved, including some crew members, allegedly place blame solely on the captain
- Some crew members time out on the diverted flight, further delaying it
* * *
There are two sides to every story and I would love to hear the crew’s account of this incident. Perhaps the parents reached up and tried to forcibly shut the monitor after being told not to. Perhaps they refused to take no for an answer and loudly berated FAs, disturbing the passengers around them. But I must admit, my instinct is to believe the parents. After my own incident in February onboard a United flight, I can personally attest that crew members and captains will lie under the guise of safety.
Two issues arise here–first, whether it is reasonable for a passenger to protest an onboard movie and second, whether the captain was justified in diverting the flight. I’ll address the latter issue first.
A captain is responsible for the safety of everyone onboard and erring on the side of caution is not necessarily unreasonable. Yet while we only have one side of the story, we know that the ejected passengers were quickly deemed safe and placed on another United flight. That’s enough for me to believe that the captain was not justified in diverting the flight.
My theory is that an over-zealous purser rang the flight deck and exaggerated about how problematic these passengers were, adding that they were now asking for the captain. I suspect the captain assumed the worst and did not want to deal with them, so he diverted the flight instead.
It seems logical that these were disruptive, boisterous passengers–how else could a flight diversion be justified–yet this is by no means established. Some people assumed I must have been rude when I was thrown off a United flight just a week after this family was for taking a picture of my seat, but that was not at all the case. All I can do is caution those saying the parents are hiding something.
The second issue is the content of inflight entertainment, particularly overhead monitors that all are exposed to. United is free to air what it wishes, but it is in United’s interest to offer content that appeals to the broadest range of passengers without alienating more sensitive viewers. That does not mean UA must limit itself to content geared toward the prudish among us, but some discretion just makes sense. Alex Cross, which received a whopping rating of 12% from Rotten Tomatoes (reason enough not to show it), purportedly features sex and hardcore violence. Without being our moral guardians, if I were running an airline I would save movies like this for personal IFE systems rather than overhead monitors.
Let’s not forget that keeping a kindergartener and second grader from looking up to the moving picture in-flight is not an easy task and in that sense, the audience is captive–they cannot just get up and walk outside. Asking passengers to keep their heads down or eyes closed if they wish to avoid certain movies is not as easy as it sounds.
Yet do not think I am totally letting the parents off the hook. Ultimately, it is parents’ responsibility to protect their children from harm and not the job of United Airlines. That’s what iPads, iPods, laptops, coloring books, and magazines are for and it sounds like the parents were not well-prepared for the 3.5-hour flight.
Many of you said that had I not spoken up and attempted to explain my reasons for photographing my seat, I would have flown to Istanbul as scheduled. That is probably true, just like it is probably true if these parents had not spoken up, the flight would have continued to Baltimore as planned. But if the story did transpire as described–“throughout these interactions the atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made”–then the parents share no blame for merely expressing their objection to the movie being shown.
Let’s see how United responds to this, if they do at all. What are your thoughts on the content of programming shown on overhead monitors during flights?