Have you heard about this story that was first reported at The Atlantic? United flight 638 from Denver (DEN) – Batimore (BWI) was diverted after a father complained to the cabin crew that the overhead movie, Alex Cross, was too violent for his two young sons. The family complains that the crew were unresponsive to their concerns and that out of nowhere the captain then decided to divert the plane to Chicago (ORD) due to “security concerns”.
On February 2, 2013 we travelled with our two young boys (4 and 8 years old) aboard United 638 from Denver to Baltimore’s BWI airport. The inflight entertainment was the movie Alex Cross, which United’s own inflight magazine rated as ‘T’, or, “Adult Themes”. It includes extreme, graphic violence and sexually explicit content. On our plane, an A320, the movie was projected on drop-down screens above the seats, such that we could not shield our young children from this inappropriate content. Alarmed by the opening scenes, we asked two flight attendants if they could turn off the monitor; both claimed it was not possible. 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. 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 flight attendants, and later the purser, claimed that they have no authority or ability to change or turn off the movie. The purser did, however, agree with us, as did many more of the passengers around us, that it is patently inappropriate to expose children to such content. We asked if the captain has the authority to address this issue, but received no response. A few minutes later we asked for the captain’s name (I failed to make note when he welcomed us on the PA system), and was told, by the purser, that we will have to ask him ourselves when we disembark. Throughout these interactions the atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made. The flight continued without incident, while my wife and I engaged our children to divert their attention from the horrific scenes on the movie screens. More than an hour later the captain, [name withheld for now], announced that due to “security concerns”, our flight was being diverted to Chicago’s ORD. Although this sounded ominous, all passengers, us included, were calm. After landing a Chicago police officer boarded the plane and, to our disbelief, approached us and asked that we collect our belongings, and follow her to disembark. The captain, apparently, felt that our complaint constituted grave danger to the aircraft, crew and the other passengers, and that this danger justified inconveniencing his crew, a few of whom “timed out” during the diversion, and a full plane of your customers, causing dozens of them to miss their connections, wasting time, precious jet fuel, and adding to United’s carbon footprint. Not to mention unnecessarily involving several of Chicago’s finest, two Border Protection officers and several United and ORD managers, and an FBI agent, who all met us at the gate. After we were interviewed (for less than 5 minutes), our identities and backgrounds checked, we were booked on the next flight to BWI, and had to linger in the terminal for hours with our exhausted and terrified little boys. 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 Captain [XX]’s actions. However, even United’s Area Supervisor, although cordial and helpful, was powerless to override the Captain’s decision that we be removed from the plane. To us, this incident raises two grave issues. First, the abuse of power by Captain [XX]. We understand that airline captains can and should have complete authority. However, when this authority is used for senseless, vindictive acts, it must be addressed. Second, and of even greater concern is 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 too sexual, for a preschooler and a 2nd grader. Cruising at 30,000 feet, leaving was not an option.To this date, our appeals to United to address these issues remain unanswered. We wrote to their Customer Service, and directly to their CEO, but received no responses.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie to comment on its content, but it certainly seems like both parties may have overreacted. We also only have the passenger’s story and don’t know what the captain was told. As they are described above, I wouldn’t exactly consider the family’s actions as posing a security threat that should have resulted in a costly and timely diversion to ORD. Though, it’s also interesting that the family couldn’t simply find other ways to occupy their boys (iPads, games, etc.) to keep them from viewing the movie, while allowing other passengers to continue watching.