July 30, 2009

R Rated at 40,000 Feet?

As I make my mental checklist to prepare for family vacations, I instinctively remember the booster seats, Ziploc bags to carry snacks, and card games and books for the long flight. But I’ve been caught short-handed on a few flights with my kids due to unexpected entertainment provided free of charge by my airline “hosts” and without the opportunity of refusal. I am sometimes at a loss when my kids are staring right up at the airline’s offering of a violent R movie on the overhead screens. I took frequent transcontinental flights when my elder son (now 12) was an infant and toddler and learned the hard way that my discerning taste for my child was not shared by the airlines. I actually purchased one of the first laptops with a DVD player just so I could use that in a pinch…and I used it shortly afterwards when my toddler son looked up and saw that Matrix was playing right in his view. The Tigger Movie was my quick replacement!

Federal broadcast laws do not apply to in-flight entertainment, and airlines are not required to adhere to motion picture ratings. The Family Friendly Flights Act was introduced in Congress in September 2007 (the 110th session of Congress) to require separate airplane seating areas for kids and families to protect them from violent inflight entertainment. Although it was referred to committee, it did not get referred back to the House and is not law. However, child advocacy groups and flight attendants have continued to work with the airlines and movie studios to lobby for logical guidelines on the selection of movies for inflight entertainment on overhead screens.

On my most recent flight with my kids, now 7 and 12, we were fortunate. The boys had their portable entertainment available but the overhead fare was reasonable for their eyes. But searching the airline websites for last month’s movies showed me that they might have been faced with Gran Torino, Dark Knight, or Quantum of Solace. US Airways, Delta and countless other airlines assert their prerogative to screen any movie for the enjoyment of all of their passengers and to edit them as they see fit.

So what is a parent to do to protect his child from inappropriate inflight films? While airline spokespersons have suggested that a parent contact a flight attendant who might be able to switch the family to “obstructed view” seats during the flight, we all know that the planes are usually filled to capacity these days. This is a chancy option at best. So here are my tips for a safer flight:

1) Choose an airline that has signed onto the principles of the Family Friendly Flights Act or at least have individual screens for each passenger. This includes Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, and Jet Blue.

2) Check on airline website for the movies that are scheduled for the upcoming month. This may or may not be helpful if you are purchasing ticket months ahead, but it will give you a heads up about the relative risk of your 2 year old watching Gran Torino or Watchmen.

3) Either purchase/borrow a portable DVD player (we bought one for about $60 at Christmas) or consider renting from an airport facility or from the airline itself. Alaska Airlines rents onboard digEplayers (personal entertainment players) to passengers with 24 hours notice. InMotion Entertainment has stores in major airports and will rent you a personal DVD player and DVDs for the flight or the whole trip. In a pinch, as I have done, use the DVD player in your laptop. For those with really good eyes, you may hand over your iPod pre-loaded with an appropriate movie for the little ones! In the case of a VERY curious preschooler, a blanket “tent” might make a fun diversion to keep her eyes on her movie and off the overhead screen.

4) Of course, try to limit your kids’ screen time on the flights. Bring books, music, playing cards and travel games for the whole family. Kids often love the one-on-one time with a parent held captive right next to them for 6 hours straight. Scrabble, Mastermind, and many other classic games come in travel editions. My younger son cajoled my husband into reading a 300 page adventure novel to him on a series of flights when he was four.

5) Provide feedback on inflight entertainment to EVERYONE in the travel industry. I have been receiving more post-flight surveys these days and I make comments on the movie issue even when it is not the topic of the survey. I applaud those flights in which I am not scrambling to “distract” (Horton Hears a Hoo followed Yes Man on our transatlantic flight…good option but the kids were already asleep for the G movie!) and I draw attention to the times that I am not so pleased (The Day the World Stood Still did not make my cut on a recent flight due to apocalyptic scenes).

Letting airlines know that you will be looking elsewhere for your travel needs is the best way to protect all of our children from these films. Airlines are traveling movie theatres but are not members of the MPAA and do not have to follow MPAA rating guidelines. So your efforts to keep your child from a PG-13 or R movie while at home are being undermined by the airlines’ lack of commitment to families. The airline industry needs your dollars and advocacy may start with consumer decisions. Until the friendly skies change, however, travel with kids means travelling prepared. Bon voyage!

By Mary Beth Miotto, MD, FAAP

Editor's Note:

Readers may be interested in checking out www.kidsafefilms.org, an organization dedicated to this very issue.