Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Expect your Thanksgiving flight filled with laptop screens

November 23, 2011 - 10:15 AM
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(Photo: flickr/brentdpayne)

American Airlines passengers pushed, shoved, and ballet-danced around one as we boarded and attempted to find our seats on a flight yesterday. Unlike my Spirit Air flights from a week and a half ago, it was wonderfully free to bring carry-on baggage, and people brought their fair share.

Once I grabbed my own middle seat, I leaned back and watched as the line of people ahead of me continued to pour into the plane and repeat the ritual. The luggage-and-seat shuffle is a familiar sight I've observed since I was a kid. Once aloft, I noticed another sight that's not so familiar — laptops all over. Today's flying experience includes not just magazines and books and earbuds but more often than ever, people pulling laptops from their bags and watching movie and TV while up in the air. The young woman in front of me, I noticed, watched Crazy, Stupid, Love with Steve Carell. The dark-haired woman next to me began tuning into the comedy Bridesmaids.

Yet the first moments of Bridesmaids raised another question for me — should people on airplanes be allowed to watch anything they want?

Here's why I ask: Bridesmaids opens with a rather intense sex scene between characters played by Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig. It's not especially graphic but there's no mistaking the naked bodies moving across a bed for what amount to multiple minutes of the film. I've seen the movie and recognized what it was but I quickly found myself wondering how other airline passengers reacted to the silent sight and what the woman herself was thinking about her laptop screen. Was she at all embarrassed? Regretting the opening scene? Considering fast-forwarding past to all the non-naked jokes in the movie? Or maybe she simply didn't care at all.

It took all of 30 seconds for the flight attendant to swoop in. "Just make sure there aren't any kids around," the airline worker told the passenger in a hushed voice as she bent over and gestured to the screen.

My fellow passenger immediately nodded and attempted to answer in the affirmative ... but any actual sound was choked in shame. She quickly looked around the aisle to make sure no children lurked, then turned back to her laptop. But the atmosphere had changed. Her hand kept reaching forward to tilt the laptop screen down, less visible to those around her. The sex scene soon ended, and the movie moved on.

Yet I found myself wondering how many other occasions like this that flight attendant had experienced. It's only natural that in 2011, people want to open their laptops and watch videos on their flights. But airplanes pack us in, and we can't help but notice what the people around us are watching. Other forms of amusement don't carry the same public element. I read a Philip Roth novel on my flight yesterday but I guarantee that no one around me had any sense of its content. Our other transportation experiences contain that same public exposure to screens, as people on the Metro stare into smartphones, Kindles, and laptops, reading and watching and playing games throughout their commutes. Should society develop etiquette surrounding these videos for when they, often publicly visible, become essentially pornographic in nature? The European airline RyanAir announced earlier this month that they're considering adding in-flight pornography, which passengers could access via smartphones and iPads.

Welcome to Thanksgiving 2011, D.C. Our travel concerns have evolved to airplane laptops and pornography.

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