Avoiding In-Flight Entertainment Incidents on United

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Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What sort of movies are inappropriate for a plane? And, in an age of iPads and handheld game devices, do your kids even notice what's playing on a shared drop-down screen? Both questions are fresh on my mind after reading a recent post by James Fallows of The Atlantic.

Fallows shares the story of a family with two young boys (ages 4 and 8) flying from Denver to Baltimore on United. When the parents complained about the violent content of the in-flight movie, the captain diverted the flight to Chicago O'Hare and had the family removed from the plane. While there's plenty of agreement that "Alex Cross," a thriller starring Tyler Perry and Matthew Fox, merits its PG-13 rating, a debate is ongoing about whether complaining about the film—which was broadcast throughout the cabin on drop-down screens (as opposed to individual seatback screens that can be turned off)—was enough to get the family thrown off the plane and re-booked on a different flight to their destination.

Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who's been keeping a close eye on United's operations as it continues to integrate with Continental post-merger, describes the incident as a "'this is how we live now' observation." The story certainly speaks to how United frequent fliers live now.

Within the newly merged fleet, passengers have found an inconsistent in-flight experience. A huge number of the former Continental planes are equipped with personal seatback entertainment options—either Live DirecTV or AVOD (audio video on demand)—and in-seat power ports, whereas a huge number of the long-time United planes are not. As someone who flies United frequently out of Newark and who, pre-merger, could rely on having an individual screen and electrical outlet, I've had to get accustomed to domestic—including transcontinental—flights with no screen or outlet, even in first class. That's something that Rahsaan Johnson, United's director of public relations, tells me the airline hopes to fix soon. Meanwhile, what's a parent to do–besides distracting their kids from questionable movies by shoving an iPhone or iPad under their noses?

When I travel on United with my own two young boys, I try to book us on flights with personal screens so that I'm guaranteed child-appropriate programming. Aviation expert Brett Snyder shared with me a quick trick for determining whether a United flight uses a plane from the former Continental fleet: United flight numbers from 1 to 199 and from 1000 to 1744 use Continental planes. Also, every 737 currently in United's fleet came from Continental, and about 88% of them have personal screens with DirecTV. (United's Denver-Baltimore flights are flown by 737s most days of the week; alas, the family that complained about the movie had the unfortunate luck of being on one of United's old Airbus A320s.)

Before booking any flight on any airline, it's always wise to check out the in-flight entertainment and power-port situation by punching the flight number into SeatGuru and, since SeatGuru is not always 100 percent correct, into SeatExpert too, for a second opinion.

Of course, an airline can always switch aircraft on you at the last minute—and in-flight entertainment equipment can break—which is why I never board a long-haul flight with the kids without either a children's DVD to pop into my laptop or an iPad preloaded with age-appropriate movies. Also essential are over-the-ears headphones (they don't fall out of children's ears the way airline earphones do) and a Y-splitter that lets you hook up two headphones to one jack (so that two kids can watch and listen to the same movie on the same device at the same time).

Related:

The A-to-Z Guide to Traveling with Kids

Top Ten Toyless Ways to Occupy Kids on Planes

Flying with a Toddler? How Not to Get Kicked Off a Plane

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