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A Parent's Problem with United Airlines (And It's Not the Baggage Fees)

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This occurred a few years ago, but I haven't given up my personal protest against United Air Lines yet. And I have since found out that I am not the only one.

Every January my wife, son and I fly to Denver for a ski vacation with my wife's family. On this particular trip we flew with United Airlines, and my son was four years old at the time. The plane was one of those in which a screen dropped down from the ceiling every four or five rows, so all passengers in the vicinity could see it (whether they wanted to or not.)

One of the flight attendants announced that rather than a movie, they would instead be showing something called "NBC on United." Neither my wife nor I was interested in this, so we left the headphones wrapped in plastic tucked into the seat pockets in front of us. That being said, every once in a while I would notice what was on screen. Our four-year-old insisted on doing the same, despite the arsenal of coloring books and crayons we had brought with us.

I don't watch much TV, so I didn't even recognize most of the shows during the two-hour flight, but I did recognize "Law and Order" when it came on, especially when there was a scene of a woman shooting a man in the head, and another in which a cadaver was dissected. My wife hurriedly tried to shield our child's eyes from viewing something that was completely inappropriate for him, and she asked me, "Didn't they use to show re-runs of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' on these flights?" I just shook my head, disappointed with the lack of judgment on the part of somebody. (The airline? The television network? Somebody?)

Our return flight was a week later. This time we spent our energies trying to divert our son's attention from viewing an episode of NBC's "Heroes," in which a young woman in a cheerleading outfit threw herself from the ledge of a building in a suicide attempt. Later there were two scenes in which a young woman clothed in her undergarments writhed in bed while being filmed for an internet porn site. Now I was no longer disappointed. I was angry.

The next day I wrote a letter to the president of United. I explained what transpired and stated, "Unless you change your policy on what you show on flights with drop-down screens, I am not going to fly your airline again."

A few weeks later someone with an important-sounding title like Senior Vice President of Something wrote me in return. I wish I had held on to the letter, but as I remember, it said words to the effect of, "NBC supplies these videos for us; we rely on them to select what is most appropriate for the general audience on a flight." In other words, he passed the buck.

He also passed me three $100 vouchers for any future United Airlines flight, anywhere in the continental United States. I sent them back a note, "I don't want your money, I want you to change what you show on a drop-down screen when you know children will be present."

I didn't hear back, but I did write an op-ed about the incident in the Burlington Free Press, which is the local paper where I live. Shortly after that I was contacted by Jesse Kalisher, a photographer from Chapel Hill, N.C., who had the same experience I did, but on a U.S. Airways flight, and was upset enough to actually convince two congressmen from his state to introduce legislation in the United States House of Representatives. The "Family Friendly Flights Act" would require airlines to create a section on an airplane where children would not be exposed to media content when there is an overhead or publicly viewable screen, and the film shown is rated PG-13 or R and/or the television content is rated TV-MA. Unfortunately, the Act has yet to be passed. It should be. Mr. Kalisher established a website, www.kidsafefilms.org if you want to learn more about.

In the meantime, I continue my little protest. The way I look at it, if someone in the privacy of their home wants to view shows that portray violence and sexual content, they have the legal right to do that, just as they have the right to go to a movie theatre for the same. But I believe I have the same legal right not to see it, and I feel even more strongly that I have the right that my child not see it. When and if a child is to start viewing PG-13 or R movies or TV-MA is a decision that belongs to parents, not an airline or a television network. But that is exactly what happens when screens are dropped down right in front of our faces.

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