Before I took my oldest son on a flight from Seattle to Washington, DC, I bought him a picture book about air travel. It’s a cheery, rhyming story that features cartoon animals enjoying a trip to wherever, and it was apparently published quite a while ago, because it depicts smiling furry stewardesses serving piping-hot food and handing out magazines and blankets.
I mean, come on. Food, blankets, pillows? I’m pretty sure that stuff disappeared from airlines at the same time as the non-plastic servingware, our ability to pack more than a thimbleful of shampoo in our carryon luggage, and our collective dignity in the security line.
9/11 forever changed how we fly, and narrowing profits continue to degrade the consumer experience. But the story of what happened to one family on a United flight from Denver to Baltimore might be the most outrageous example of how truly unpleasant — and inefficient — air travel has become.
Maybe you heard about this bizarre incident? Basically, a family is alleging that when they requested that the in-flight movie be turned off, the captain reacted by diverting their flight.
I know, right??
The PG-13 film was “Alex Cross,” and the parents felt it was inappropriate for their 4- and 8-year old boys. In a letter to The Atlantic Magazine, the family said,
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. (…) 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.
A United Airlines spokesman confirmed the flight had been diverted, claiming that the crew had reported a disturbance involving a passenger. He said the airline had since conducted a review of its in-flight content.
I really and truly don’t know where to begin with this craziness. It’s the sort of thing that makes me even more reluctant to fly with my kids — and believe me, between the draconian security processes, the seemingly inevitable delays and cancellations, and the increasingly uncomfortable (yet horrifically expensive) accommodations, I wasn’t eager to do it in the first place.
I don’t think parents traveling with kids should receive special treatment that negatively affects those around them, but it’s incomprehensible that this family’s relatively simple request — one that their fellow passengers were happy to support — resulted in the plane being diverted. I can’t imagine what the captain was thinking. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for all the travelers on board that day.
It’s just one more story that shows how much things have changed. Flying used to be fun, for kids and grownups alike. These days, it’s an ordeal at best. I wonder how many families are avoiding air travel altogether, simply because so few destinations are worth the effort to get there.
Are you less likely to travel with your kids these days?