Airline Passenger Code of Conduct, Part 1

What would you do if, on a cross-country flight in which every seat is taken, the guy next to you started watching a hard-core erotic video on his laptop?

I posed this question to readers of this column after I had read a surprising anecdote in The New York Times. Here is what caught my attention in the Times' "On the Road" column (published May 8) by Joe Sharkey:

<blockquote>Recently, [a female airline passenger] was in a window seat on a full flight from Newark to San Francisco, next to a man who opened his laptop on his tray table and began watching a hard-core pornographic DVD.</blockquote>

<blockquote>"It was hard to ignore, with him sitting that close," said [the passenger], who finally got up and asked a flight attendant what could be done, since she didn't want to engage the man. The answer: Nothing.</blockquote>

Why could nothing be done? The column offered an explanation from Tim Kirkwood, a former longtime flight attendant. '"Typically, there isn't much you can do that won't come back to haunt you later with some lawsuit or trouble," he told the Times.

You can read the original New York Times article online, though it will cost you $5.

This anecdote raised lots of questions. Are airline attendants so worried about possible litigation from passengers that bad behavior, as long as it doesn't pose a health or security risk, is often ignored? Was the attendant concerned that the passenger might become disruptive or even violent if confronted? And if so, would that force the airplane captain to make an unscheduled (not to mention costly) stop in order to have the passenger arrested?

More questions: What should a female passenger--or male, for that matter--have said or done in this situation? Don't airlines have some kind of passenger code of conduct that prohibits the in-flight viewing of offensive material on a laptop, portable DVD player, or other device? If not, shouldn't there be one?

This is just not a porn thing, by the way. Plenty of mainstream videos include nudity, simulated sex, raw violence, and other material that might turn those seated near you into an uncomfortably captive audience.

And it's not just about what you watch, but how. For example, in "High Tech Etiquette, Part 2," I reported on a miserable flight endured by Joe Bruno of Wilton, Connecticut. Joe had the misfortune of being seated behind a family with four children. During the flight, two of the kids watched DVD videos--without earphones. The father chastised his kids, but to no avail. "I couldn't decide which was worse," Joe wrote, "[the father's] pleading with the brats or the awful sound of two movies at once." You can read more stories like this one in "High-Tech Etiquette, Part 1."

Is There a Passenger Code of Conduct?

To find out if such a code exists, I did a spot check of several airlines' Contract of Carriage and Acceptance of Passengers legal explanations, which they post on their Web sites. I e-mailed several of the major airlines' public relations departments to inquire. And I checked the Web sites of the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. The answer? In short: There is no such code of conduct.

Airlines do have rules regarding passenger conduct, however vaguely worded they may be. For example, American Airlines' Acceptance of Passengers states: "American may refuse to transport you, or may remove you from your flight at any point, for one or several reasons, including but not limited to the following." The document goes on to list seven examples of behavior that may cause you to be kicked off a plane, but only number six comes close to addressing the offensive behavior described in the Times: "Your conduct is disorderly, abusive, or violent, or you...refuse to obey instructions from any flight crew member."

Also, several airlines include restrictions regarding offensive clothing. Example: Southwest Airlines' Contract of Carriage states that the carrier "may refuse to transport or remove from the aircraft at any point any...persons is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive." Last year, in fact, a woman flying Southwest Airlines was forced off a flight for wearing a T-shirt that other passengers found objectionable.

The bottom line: Airlines don't spell out what you can't watch on your laptop or personal video device. But their rules regarding "offensive behavior" are general enough to employed on a case-by-case basis, to prevent one passenger from doing something that makes others uncomfortable.

"Because everyone has a different opinion of what constitutes 'offensive' material, typically in these types of situations, the crew would attempt to re-seat the passenger and/or let the customer know that what they are watching is offensive to those seated around them and ask them to turn it off," explains Julie King, a spokesperson for Continental Airlines.

Should There Be?

Should there be a universal airline passenger code of conduct specifically stating that no one will be allowed to view pornographic or otherwise offensive material in flight? In theory, it sounds like a good idea. In practice, however, such a policy seems impractical at best. For starters, don't flight attendants have enough to do already, ensuring everyone's safety and comfort? Must they also be asked to tackle something that has perplexed even the Supreme Court--deciding what is and what isn't pornography?

Beau Sweetwater, a recently retired airline captain with 36 years of flying experience, weighed in on the matter in an e-mail. "Should we have a universal airline passenger code of conduct?" he asks. "For what? Does anyone (other than the most naive idealist) think that the 'problem' passengers will pay any attention to it? I can remember when people dressed nicely for travel, but I have actually thrown a Washington, DC passenger off a flight for refusing to wear shoes (a safety issue)."

Sweetwater continues: "The ticket you purchase gives you seat space on a flight in the cabin area for which you paid. If the passenger meets the criteria established during the financial exchange for that ticket and the flight departs, they have the right to go on that flight. The entire time on board the aircraft they must comply with the federal regulations governing passengers and crew on air carrier aircraft. The porn viewer does not appear to have been breaking any of those regulations."

Sweetwater offered an amusing suggestion for how he would have handled the situation. I'll share his solution, as well as those from other readers, next week.

In the meantime, a suggestion of my own: The next time you're in a crowded area--particularly a full airplane cabin--and you're watching a video in which nudity, sex, or violence is explicitly dramatized, do everyone a favor. Simply lower your laptop or DVD player screen until the scene is over.

Keep in mind that today's high-gloss, bright notebook screens are more easily viewed from an angle than traditional, matte-finish LCDs. If you don't want to lower your screen, consider using a laptop privacy filter. 3M makes some affordable antiglare filters (about $40 or more).

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

How to Deal With iPhone Envy: If nothing else, Apple's new iPhone is bound to generate discontent among those who are attracted to the new phone--but not enough to pay its $500 or $600 price tag. Not to worry: With the right software, your phone can take on at least some of the iPhone's cool character. Example: Apple's Visual Voicemail features lets you view a listing of voice-mail messages and choose which ones to listen to, instead of having to listen to each message, one at a time. But CallWave, a free service, and GotVoice, available free or $10 monthly (with no ads), both let you view a list of voice mail messages. Read "iPhone Versus Your Phone: Tips to Avoid iPhone Envy" for more tips.

Still Want That iPhone?: Though it's received glowing reviews, Apple's iPhone has its limitations, which are detailed in our article "11 iPhone Gotchas." To name a few: you can't remove the battery; it only works on AT&T's sluggish EDGE data network; and though the iPhone apparently will connect with Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers, doing so requires some security compromises that may be unacceptable.

Top Blogs for Gadgets: In our "100 Blogs We Love" roundup, we cited Engadget and Gizmodo as two favorites. Both are great resources for the latest buzz on portable electronics, including smart phones, media players, and other gadgets.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
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