Violent In-flight Movies and Young Kids = a Diversion?

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In case you have missed it, there is a pretty interesting thread on Flyertalk about a family that apparently caused a flight to be diverted due to the perceived security risk they caused when they got upset about a violent movie being shown on the overhead monitors.  There are several interesting issues that this story has raised, so I thought it was worth sharing.

You can read the full story here, but the short version is that in February a family with a 4- and an 8-year-old flew on United from Denver to Baltimore.  The movie Alex Cross was showing on the overhead screens.  I have not seen this movie, but by all accounts I have read it is a very violent movie with graphic scenes and sexually explicit content (you know, my husband’s favorite).  The family was alarmed by the opening scenes, and asked two flight attendants if they could turn off the monitor because they didn’t want their two children to watch that content.

The flight attendants said it was not possible to do so, the purser got involved, and eventually the family asked if the captain had the authority to intervene.  The family reports that during all of that the “atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made.” The flight reportedly continued on for roughly another hour and then diverted to Chicago due to “security threats”.  The family was shocked to learn they were the threat and they were escorted off the plane and interviewed by police, FBI, border protection, etc.  They were then able to continue on to their final destination on another United flight.

I have no idea if this is the full story, but it still raises some interesting questions.  First, if you are a parent, do you care at all what an airline displays over their in-flight video monitors?  Are you okay with portrayed sex, violence, murders, etc?  Do you ever look at what an airline will be showing before booking or taking the flight?  I’m betting most of us with young kids don’t show that kind of stuff at home when our kids are around, but are you okay with others showing it to them?  Alex Cross is rated PG-13, but it seems to be a pretty nasty PG-13 that I would likely cover my eyes for at some points…I’m a wuss.  Do I want my three-year-old watching a movie where someone gets be-headed?  No.

So on some level I totally understand where these parents are coming from, and they were quite possibly shocked at what they saw come on a basically public movie screen.  On the other hand, there is no chance I would personally ask for it to be changed.  I would just occupy my child as best I could and limit her exposure.  The odds of her being interested in an adult movie at her age are very low anyway….even if I wanted her to be.  Still, it is an interesting movie choice for a public arena and there is always the decent chance that she would look up at the screen just when someone was getting whacked (Murphy’s Law).  You would think there would be plenty of other PG or less violent PG-13 movies to pick from that could appeal to a wider audience and be less offensive.

The other interesting issue is the flight diversion.  This is the part where the truth is less verifiable.  It is easy to verify that Alex Cross was shown on United flights in February.  It is easy to verify there are graphic scenes in the movie.  It is easy to assume there were children on the flight who could see the movie.  It is easy to verify that this flight did divert.  It is much harder to know exactly why.  For the heck of it, let’s assume the story is 100% true as described.  Even if a parent is a bit huffy and puffy that a violent movie can’t be turned off, is that a security threat worthy of a diversion that will impact many people?

I know when I had an issue with being allowed to use my car seat on a flight earlier this year that it didn’t take me long to drop the issue.  Whether real or perceived, I felt the possibility that if I pushed the issue that I might be asked to take my family and leave the plane, even without any yelling or threats.  Based on other stories I had heard, I was afraid that the mere fact that I disagreed with a flight attendant/gate agent on-board the aircraft could be enough for me to get the boot (even if I was right).  I didn’t want that to happen, so after a few protests I just shut-up.  So, I do feel it could be possible for folks to get kicked off planes without being a real security threat.  Whether or not that happened here, I don’t know.  Safety absolutely always has to come first, but I do sometimes wonder if that comes at the expense of common sense or a more reasonable solution.

I’d love to hear your thoughts both on whether you think it matters that airlines show violent/graphic movies on screens that young kids can see AND your thoughts on how disruptive you think a person has to be to get a flight diverted.  Is a disagreement enough?  Is “having an attitude” enough?  Is raising your voice enough?


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  1. I am not a parent yet, but I did see Alex Cross when it was one of the available movies on my United flight in February and the passenger next to me was watching it. I personally, being in my 20’s, found it unpleasant especially given there is a male against female sexually explicit scene that involves pain and torture. I had to divert my eyes and look away – with children, there’s no way that should be shown on an overhead video screen. I don’t know who made that decision.

  2. I would have voiced my concern once but not pushed the issue. Instead, I would have written a polite but firm letter to corporate as soon as I had the time. When flying, I feel it’s my responsibility to keep my kids occupied.

    I spend time packing to keep them busy while flying so they are not a problem to other flyers. For our current trip, I purchased small legos (yes, I will leave with as many pieces as I brought), coloring book/crayons, art pad, a book to read and an appropriate movie with headphones for the tablet as well as multiple healthy snacks. We are lucky that our kids travel well.

  3. I recently flew Air Berlin with my nine year old and the screens were personalized on each chair. I kept a watch of what movies she saw cause I sure as heck don’t want her seeing sexual content and/or violence.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m with Miles Professor, there’s no way a movie like that should be THE in flight entertainment. It’s fine to include it when each seat has their own seat back screen and choice.
    And if the story is 100% true as described, then the airline overreacted by diverting, and the parents were completely justified in being annoyed. It’s more than a little disconcerting to think that we all have to keep our mouths shut and do as we are told, because voicing our opinion (in a respectful way) could get us kicked off the plane. I may have let my concerns be known to the FA, and said, “Is there anything we can do to keep my kids from seeing this movie?” If they didn’t have any suggestions (i.e. a move up to FC or BC, or turning off a subset of the monitors near us), then I’d have kept my mouth shut and contacted corporate. Not so much out of politeness or fear, but practicality, if they can’t/won’t do something about it, then wait till you can speak to someone with the power to correct the situation.
    Bad, bad, bad decision United. On the movie and the diversion.

  5. Inflight entertainment is tough on planes. Even when each person has a personal screen. I was recently travelling alone but seated next to a girl, maybe 10 years old, who was also travelling alone. I started watching a comedy that had very sexually explicit scenes and felt like I had to turn it off because she could obviously see it, and I felt it was inappropriate for her (I have three kids myself). The best solution is to simply provide different entertainment for your kids, and hope their attention is diverted. My kids and I flew last week on United, and had the option to pay for DirectTV for them. They stayed totally occupied and didn’t pay attention to what others were watching. Of course, at one point I looked over and my 8 year old had selected Family Guy, so nothing is perfect!

  6. I do look over the list of movies available on flights and, in general, it’s my impression that you don’t see non-family entertainment on overhead / bulkhead screens. This seems like an unusual case in that respect.
    Another interesting issue is people watching violent movies — and sometimes actual pornography — on their own tablets or laptops, especially given the new wide-angle-viewable IPS screens that are becoming commonplace.
    With respect to the diversion, as you say it’s really not possible to know what actually transpired. But on a plane (or boat) the pilot and crew are in charge and if you refuse to accept their answer — even if it’s “no” and even if you don’t consider it to be reasonable — then you risk losing your right of passage.

  7. As a parent of 5 year old twins, I think airlines need to be aware of their movie selection. I just saw Alex Cross and there was torture scenes and body dismemberment scenes.

    While I can understand the majority of flyers are adults, I would be fine with PG or even subtle R rated movies, but scenes with sexual or torture scenes seem inappropriate even for adult viewing.

  8. Obviously there are two sides to every story. But the fact is that United ended up carrying the family to their final destination on another United flight after the family was interviewed by FBI, etc. That indicates fter a complete review United realized that the family was not a security threat, and they shouldn’t have been kicked off the plane in the first place.

  9. Selling tickets for kids, everybody watching the same screen, no way an R or PG 13 should be shown. But you are mistaken if you think that you can do anything about it on the plane with the flight underway. Put a hood over the monitor so nobody else can see the only movie? Come on. It seems an overreaction to have diverted the flight when nobody was being an actual security threat, if it really happened that way.

  10. American used to air violent movies and then someone complained and actually filed a lawsuit and then for the longest time, everyone was subjected to G-rated films. That changed this year and it’s a grabfest on what will air.

    (Personally, I side with PG or G movies for the public airspace. On the personal TV screens or laptops, it’s to each its own, although I’ve seen pax watching porn on flights too which is outrageous.)

  11. I think it’s ridiculous that parents would be allowed to complain about something like that. Do they think seeing violent and/or sexual content on TV will have a meaningful effect on children? Not if they are raised right. Looks to me like a case of bad parents afraid of nonsense they hear on the news.

  12. It is interesting to me that smoking was banned on all domestic flights because it is harmful to non-smokers on the flight, but yet harming our children’s minds (and adults for that matter) is somehow considered OK. I certainly have a right to expect not to have to close my eyes while in-flight entertainment is shown.

  13. Do your job as a parents and keep your children entertained from the beginning to end of the flight. Don’t count on the TV to babysit your children from DEN to BWI.

    This seems like a parent making her children out to be the most important passengers on the plane. I wish I could turn off the guy who has had too much to drink or the lady who just won’t shut up 2 rows ahead of me or even the kid who keeps kicking my seat because his mom is napping, but I deal with it because that’s what comes along with choosing to fly a commercial airline.

    As for the security risk, I think this was a flight crew that hand a problematic parent onboard and wanted to pass the buck to another crew. It’s not appropriate for United to divert, but it wasn’t appropriate for the parent to get the entire cabin crew involved in a problem with the inflight programing.

    If you don’t want to be subjected to inflight entertainment fly southwest.

  14. I am most bothered by graphic violence in movies, as well as violence associated with sexual encounters. Such materials are wholeheartedly inappropriate for children, and frankly, inappropriate for my own weak stomach. A scene which obviously is leading to a sexual encounter is not exactly child appropriate, but that is VERY minor, compared to egregious violence. When I let my kids watch Star Wars films, I skip through certain parts. Certain scenes in those 6 films, even, are inappropriate for most children under 10.

  15. Haldami, you don’t have kids, do you? What kids see on tv does matter. Violence, sex, etc is not what you want a young child exposed to.

  16. While I agree that it is a parent’s responsibility to entertain children on flights, diverting the attention of a 3-year-old would be much easier than diverting the attention of an 8-year-old boy if he wants to watch what is up on the screen. I think this movie was very inappropriate, and as now I will have to consider this when making flight plans. I try to book award flights well in advance. Does anyone know how soon it is possible to find out what the in-flight entertainment will be?

  17. I would have tried to tweet United in flight. Of course, then they’d have a legitimate reason to land the flight!

    The idea that these parents were a security risk is really ridiculous. Did someone think they were going to crash the plan to stop their kids from seeing the movie?

  18. No flight should show other than G-rated content on overhead displays. Ever. This family is owed an apology.

  19. Vicente’s overreaction is the very reason business travelers are hostile to kids on planes. Would love to hear your suggestions of ‘G’ movies that grown folks would find entertaining.

    As for the family, demanding the screen (which other passengers are in the midst of watching) be shut off is unreasonable; requesting UA remove the movie from its lineup going forward is the appropriate response.

  20. OMG, I cannot believe this movie was chosen as an in-flight choice. 🙁 I have been surprised in the past by other film choices — I distinctly remember saying to myself “really?” when I found out Pirates of the Carribean was being shown. I love the movie, but it surprised me that a PG13 film was going to be shown. My two daughters were not yet allowed to watch PG13 films but there we were all on the plane together. I would NOT have been happy if Alex Cross was playing on our flight. I’m almost certain I would have said something to the FAs if I looked up to see a sexually violent content on the screens near our seats. If they would have said “sorry, we can’t turn it off” I would have been very, very annoyed but probably wouldn’t have pushed it. I would have directed my daughters to keep their eyes diverted. I’m a pretty firm Momma Tiger when I need to be, but I’m not sure pushing an issue at 30,000 feet would have happened either. I don’t know all the facts of what transpired, but it seems to me like this situation could have been handled without diverting to another city — that sounds very extreme to me.

  21. I too am shocked that United showed this film on the overhead screens. Much too violent for most kids. I bring my own iPad to entertain my daughter and I doubt she would have been interested in it anyway (as she’s only 3 and pretty much only watches animated shows), but I can see how this would be really tough on parents with kids in the 6-10 year age range who want to watch live action. United needs to seriously rethink its movie choices. PG and even many PG-13 movies are fine, as long as they aren’t excessively violent or sexual.

    I do hope we get more information on the diversion, but if the story is true, it is ridiculous. Pilots and flight attendants are people too… they can have bad days, and if you push their buttons at the wrong moment, you can really pay a price as a passenger. This is the sad state of air travel today. I wouldn’t have pushed it as far as this family did, but that doesn’t mean that they deserved what happened to them. And this certainly wasn’t fair to the other passengers on the flight who may have missed connections or valuable vacation time thanks to the diversion.

  22. Kids or no kids, this is not an appropriate movie to screen throughout a cabin as the single mode of in-flight entertainment.

    I was in the FT thread before, and the knee-jerk reaction by the hard-of-thinking brigade was to say that they wouldn’t cartoons instead. There is a huge middle ground here, occupied by hundreds upon hundreds of excellent (and appropriate) movies.

    Just because something’s PG-13 doesn’t make it ok to show on a plane. United needs to exercise a little intelligence as well. It’s hardly rocket surgery…

  23. This is a serious issue on flights! We have young kids and DO NOT want them seeing many of the shows presented. Why do the airlines insist on showing these movies? We deal with it by getting a movie for our kids to watch ahead of time so they are distracted and not paying attention to the one overhead [most of the time].

  24. Seems like this is the year where UA FAs get the overreaction award!!! Didn’t somebody get booted of a UA flight for taking pics of the business class seats recently?

  25. This sounds like something my extremely protective dh would do, but even he would not ask the crew to turn off the monitor. Granted ua should not show this type of movies to young kids, but we do realize that we are in a public space that we chose and the entertainment is geared toward the majority, which are 90% adults. We simply ask our 7 year old daughter to not watch it and provide kids appropriate entertainment for her. One can always request to switch seats right under a monitor so you can’t even see it.

  26. There are several things in play here, and they all came together to escalate the incident.
    First, the movie selection. basically, airlines should only show films that are appropriate for network TV. Since there is a code in place for broadcast TV, why not follow it to be sure all passengers enjoy themselves?
    Along those lines if UA really wants to get ahead without issues, they should consider playing the classics. Maybe run the AFI Top 100 films of all time (edited for TV versions if required), or classic films like Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Singing in the Rain, the classic Universal horror films (Bela Lagose, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Abbot & Costello 😉 ). They can’t go wrong with the classics, and many people may enjoy seeing a great film they never watched before.
    Next is customer service. UA is gaining a reputation for poor service on the ground and in the air. How FAs handle the situation is more important than the flier, IMO. If the FA presented the reason for not turning off the monitor (other PAX, system limits, etc) and worked with the family to find alternatives, then the parents would likely feel UA cared and at least tried. However based on past performance, I bet it came down to an “because I said so” statement. I wonder if it was a “proud CO” crew or a former UA crew. 😛
    Lastly, society plays a major part in this incident. With the departure of those from the “Greatest generation” (as coined by Tom Brokaw), we have lost our moral compass as a society. We have movies, shows, music, and other forms of media that would never be available for public consumption thirty or forty years ago, and we are talking during the craziness of the 1970s and 1980s! As a society, we are doomed, and it will never be “like it was”. Unfortunately, we need to raise our kids the best we can and hope they aren’t too damaged when they become adults. As a GenX-er, I miss the presence of our grandparents to check our parents (baby boomers) and keep things moving in a somewhat un-self centered direction .

  27. I am surprised they would show a movie like that on the overhead screens, and think it was not an appropriate decision. I do think parents should have stuff to entertain their kids, but you can’t force them to keep their eyes down and not on the screen. It was a bad choice by United.

  28. Sure, it might have been a bad choice by United. However, the passengers did not go about it the right way. The flight attendants are told (and it is advertised) that they are showing a specific movie. The flight attendants do not control that. Instead of making a huge deal about it during flight (a flight would not be diverted if they simply asked if another movie could be shown and kept it at that), they should have waited until they got home and written United a letter voicing their concern.

  29. I actually appreciate the fact that these parents raised the issue during the flight and that it caused this kind of attention. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that anyone would be exposed to this kind of movie in a captive audience. I’ve always assumed the overhead inflight entertainment was of the type that was suitable to any audience and now that I know it’s not, I can make a more informed choice for myself.

  30. The decision to divert the flight seems so arbitrary based on the reported facts that I’m going to wait until more details come out. I am sure UA will have a lot of questions on this one and we’ll have to see where the answers take us.

    The question about the movie is a great one for MP in todays world and tomorrows, as the percentage of people with personal video devices increase. I was walking back from the restroom on a recent flight and and my eye caught a screen with an extended scene with a naked woman. No big deal to me-like MP’s husband, I support free speech in this area. But I looked over at the screen holders’ seatmates wondering if there was a child over there.

    Now spare me the lecture on whether a kid should see a naked woman. Eveeyone has an opinion on that but the only opinion that should control is the parents’ opinion. The post that said parents should just entertain their kids and the kids won’t look at an overhead, or at the IPad in the next seat must have been writing from another planet.

    But how and who balances the parents’ right to decide what their kids watch with those of a person who says they have the right to watch whatever they decide and if a kid is in the next seat, too bad.

    And then consider if we turn the situation around. Imagine a situation in which a parent accuses a stranger of making inappropriate movies or videos visible to their child. The video at issue could be one that almost all of us would agree is over the line or it could be one that most of us think is pretty innocent. That’s the rub-who gets to decide? FT has post after post with stories about people who clip their toe nails and a lot worse during flights. Do each of these cretons really get to decide what my granddaughter should and shouldn’t watch?

    Tough questions with no easy answers I can see.

  31. It took an hour to decide there were security concerns? Now I’m concerned about them should there be a legitimate threat.

  32. I try to avoid united flights with overheads for many reasons but especially because I have a young son and have been in this exact situation (upset over movie choice-not getting kicked off plane).I would have been upset at this selection of ”entertainment” and attempting to avert a 7 year child’s eyes for 2 hours doesn’t work. I know folks don’t want to watch the spongebob movie….but there has to be something inbetween. And seriously, if it is on the overhead we can probably do without it all things considered…

  33. When my kids were 8 and 13, we were in the bulkhead seats and they were playing the movie “True Lies” with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwar….[you know who I mean] with a screen pretty much right in our faces. My kids are married now but I remember trying to distract them with the puzzles and games I had brought along. My kids were VERY sensitive to violent or scary material as am I and even Jamie’s pole dance routine was not appropriate viewing for kids. I recall I sent a letter to complain but can’t remember the outcome–we’re talking 1994 after all. In this day and age, I would recommend getting an inexpensive DVD player and coming prepared. They have them for under $100 that even have two headphone jacks so they can share watching a movie.

  34. Airlines have guidelines made to have any explicit material edited out even from pg movies. The truth to this story is the passenger got irate, was screaming and disrupting the flight. There are many witnesses to this. THAT is why they diverted. Of course the family is going to downplay everything as to not get in trouble. People should bring books, games and other forms of entertainment for their young children to do.

  35. I am sitting on a flight portland to nyc– they just showed iron man 3- and there are children on board– as i have two young children myself and will soon by flying with them across country, i am horrified to see that the airline would think it acceptabe to show this type of movie. It was extremely- i mean extremely- violent and scary even with the most extreme bits edited out. This film is an extreme violent action movie- and most of the content is just that. I know that my children would be transfixed by the screen as most children often are even if they dont understand whats going on– That level of action and things they’ve never seen would absolutely capture their attention. The decision to show this type of film in light shows a serious level of dissocciation and numbness on the part of those involved in the film selection.It should not be allowed. I will be writing to delta- and will not fly the airline again because of this.

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