SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

Airborne Porn

In-flight internet service means access to adult content in close quarters -- and a problem for airlines.

(Mark Horn - Getty Images)
By Joe Brancatelli Business Travel
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; 10:19 AM

The complaints began just days after American Airlines began testing its in-flight internet service this summer. A few passengers were offended that they were in the line of sight of travelers who were pulling up porn sites on their laptop computers. Flight attendants, "empowered" by the airline to police "inappropriate" in-flight Web content, suddenly found themselves refereeing disputes better discussed in the boudoir than in business class.

"It's just icky," one American flight attendant emailed me a few weeks ago. "How do you diplomatically tell one paying passenger that another paying passenger is disgusted by his viewing habits?"

American and its internet provider, Aircell, brought the porn problem on themselves. Before launch, they decided to bar the use of voice-over-internet sites such as Skype. But they chose to leave the rest of the Web accessible at 40,000 feet and rely on the discretion of passengers and the attention of overworked flight attendants. After all, executives at both companies pointed out, passengers don't need the Net to get in-flight porn. They could load it onto their laptops before they fly or bring along a couple of DVDs.

After hearing from its flight attendants' union and getting some, well, icky publicity, American beat a hasty retreat. Last month, the airline announced it was "working with Aircell to implement technology to filter pornographic content." Delta Air Lines, which will soon offer Aircell internet, says it will bar in-flight porn too. And with the exception of Virgin America, which is scheduled to launch its first internet trial this weekend, so will several other carriers preparing to test in-flight Web access.

Unfortunately, we've reached the "slippery slope" part of this column. Smut in the skies is just the latest iteration of a problem that has vexed airlines and passengers for decades, for at least as long as carriers have offered in-flight entertainment. What's "appropriate content" in a mass-market business that involves the uniquely cramped, cheek-by-jowl atmosphere of an aircraft tube?

For decades, airlines screened only the most inoffensive movies and videos on their in-flight entertainment systems. G-rated movies and family fare ruled the skies. PG movies were vetted and anything edgy was left on the metaphoric cutting-room floor: Scenes with plane crashes or hostage situations were eliminated, of course. Violence and gore was trimmed. Bad language was right out. Sex and drugs (if not rock and roll) were bleeped or censored. Movies with an R rating were almost never shown. And it all made sense when a planeful of passengers -- a random mix of business travelers, grannies, kids, parents, and prudes -- all stared at common overhead screens.

But as airlines introduced individual video systems that permitted dozens, even hundreds, of channels of entertainment on personal, at-seat monitors, standards began to loosen. Social mores changed too. In came movies with gory violence, hip-hop music tracks with raw language, and entertainment with adult themes. Out-and-out porn was still verboten, but carriers stopped barring movies with nudity. Even on aircraft with old-style overhead monitors, films got spicier, a little more violent and, arguably, more in tune with mainstream tastes.

A backlash was inevitable. Parents insisted they couldn't stop their kids from staring at someone else's screens and seeing images that they would never be permitted to view at home. The more easily offended among us were also distressed. And moral crusaders were, as always, crusading for their brand of purity.

Last year, a photographer in North Carolina launched a website to push back against "inappropriate" in-flight films after his kids were exposed to what he considered overly violent images from the most recent remake of King Kong. He and his allies helped convince Representative Heath Shuler (Democrat, North Carolina) to introduce the Family Friendly Flights Act. The bill would have required airlines to provide a separate seating area for families if the carrier "provides publicly viewable entertainment screens on which violent programming is displaced."

The measure died quietly after a burst of leering publicity, but airlines remain wary. As an airline friend of mine said this week: "Save me from activists who want us to show nothing but Disney films. And save me from passengers who complain that I don't show art-house films in-flight. I've got an airline to run."

Of course, it could be worse. Just ask the folks at Marriott. Over the last couple of years, the lodging giant has been harassed by the Arlington Group, a coalition of about four dozen conservative Christian organizations, including James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins' Family Research Council, and Don Wildmon's American Family Council. Their demand: that Marriott stop selling pay-per-view porno movies in rooms.

From a strictly tactical point of view, targeting Marriott makes sense. The hotel chain is one of the world's largest, operating more than 3,000 properties ranging from side-of-the-road motels and big-city hotels to timeshare operations and luxury resorts. Besides, the Marriotts, who still run the publicly owned lodging group, are one of the nation's highest-profile Mormon families.

But the logic of the Arlington Group's attack stretches credulity. Like all hotels that have in-room adult entertainment, Marriott doesn't offer it free and includes a "lock-out" feature that allows parents to guarantee that their children cannot order the movies. In other words, unlike on airplanes, there's no chance an unwitting hotel guest can be exposed to potentially offensive material. That really doesn't matter to the Christian crusaders because "all pornography is harmful," according to a statement on the Focus on the Family website.

In response to the Arlington Group's campaign, a few individual hotels have stopped selling in-room porn. Some chains (most notably Omni Hotels) haven't sold pay-per-view adult entertainment for years. And for its part, Marriott says it has added a few more safeguards to its in-room lock-out systems.

But one hotel executive I spoke to this week made a backhanded case for keeping in-room porn. Her chain doesn't sell adult entertainment, but she pointed out that hotels with in-room pay-per-view "generally have less trouble keeping the hookers out of their lobbies."

The Fine Print ...

In-room porn is hardly a high-profit item. In fact, travelers rarely order pay-per-view movies of any kind in their hotel rooms. According to the latest Securities and Exchange Commission filing by LodgeNet, the nation's leading provider of in-room entertainment systems, monthly revenue from "on-demand entertainment such as movies" is just $16.85 a room. Roughly speaking, that works out to just two movies per month being ordered from an average hotel room.

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