Complaint: Plane diverted, passengers removed after asking to turn off 'inappropriate' movie

Published: Friday, April 5 2013 12:42 p.m. MDT

In this Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012 file photograph, a United Airlines passenger plane takes off at Newark Liberty International airport in Newark, N.J.

Mel Evans, Associated Press

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Complaints about airline services are nothing new, but one family's story about a flight diversion caused by concerns about the appropriateness of an in-flight movie has United Airlines reviewing its entertainment policy.

In a passenger report published in a series of airline-focused articles in The Atlantic, two parents and their sons, ages 4 and 8, were flying from Denver to Baltimore in February. The in-flight entertainment, the parents said, was Tyler Perry's "Alex Cross," which United's in-flight magazine says contains "adult themes."

According to OK.com, "Alex Cross" has a 16-plus rating and tells the story of a Detroit detective hunting a serial killer and working to stem his own violent urges.

Because the movie was being shown on drop-down screens above the seats, the parents asked two flight attendants if they could turn off the monitor, the complaint stated. They were told it would be impossible.

"The first flight attendant also claimed that the screen could not be folded up independently (which it clearly could) and that even if it could, she would still not authorize closing it because of the passengers sitting behind us," the complaint said. "At this point, the passengers behind us spoke up and agreed the content was inappropriate for children and announced it would not bother them at all to switch it off. Both the flight attendants, and later the purser, claimed that they have no authority or ability to change or turn off the movie."

During the incident, the parents asked if the captain had authority to address the issue, and later for the captain's name.

"Throughout these interactions the atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised, and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made," the complaint said.

However, according to the report, more than an hour later the captain announced that the flight would be diverted to Chicago due to "security concerns." Upon landing in Chicago, a police officer came on board and asked the family to disembark.

"After we were interviewed (for less than 5 minutes), our identities and backgrounds checked, we were booked on the next flight to (Baltimore), and had to linger in the terminal for hours with our exhausted and terrified little boys," the report concluded. "Everyone involved: The FBI agent, the police officers, United employees, the passengers around us and (we were told) some of the crew, were incredulous, and explicit in their condemnation of (the captain's) actions."

The incident raised the issue of abuse of power by airline captains, the parents wrote after the fact, but also the issue of United's decision "to inflict upon minors grossly inappropriate cinematic content, without parents or guardians having the ability to opt out."

"Had this been in a cinema or a restaurant, we would have simply left if the content were too violent or sexual for a preschooler and a second grader. Cruising at 30,000 feet, leaving was not an option," the parents said.

United Airlines released brief a statement about the incident.

"United flight 638 from Denver to Baltimore diverted to Chicago O'Hare after the crew reported a disturbance involving a passenger. The flight landed without incident and the customers were removed from the flight," the statement said. "We reaccomodated the customers on the next flight to Baltimore and have since conducted a full review of our in-flight entertainment."

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