Should you be allowed to watch porn on a plane?

By | March 8th, 2014

Tom Bilek/Shutterstock
Tom Bilek/Shutterstock
The pornographic images Elizabeth Saft recently glimpsed on her seatmate’s cellphone while she was flying from Sacramento to Minneapolis on Delta Air Lines can’t be described here.

“I told him to stop it,” says Saft, a clinical psychologist from Davis, Calif. “To which he responded: ‘Just don’t look!'”

She complained to a flight attendant, who relocated her to an open middle seat. “Needless to say, this was extremely distressing, and profoundly unfair to me,” she adds. “I believe the man should have been moved. I believe his behavior was criminal.”

If electronic devices such as cellphones aren’t already a flashpoint between passengers on mass transit, they probably will be soon. Tablets, phablets and laptops can be used almost any time on a commercial aircraft, thanks to a new, more permissive Federal Aviation Administration rule. The government is also reportedly considering allowing wireless calls to be made from planes. But these gadgets can offend fellow passengers in many ways.

The chorus calling for new restrictions on technology is growing louder. But it’s singing the wrong tune. A sounder solution? Adjusting our expectations of privacy in a shared space, upgrading our collective manners and becoming more aware of the intrusiveness of our technology.

It isn’t just that mobile devices are enormous and sport bright, crisp screens. It’s that travelers can’t seem to look away.

Privacy experts call it shoulder surfing, and it does a lot more than offend your seatmate. Having someone read your password while you work online is the cause of “too many” cases of ID theft, according to Denis Kelly, author of The Official Identity Theft Prevention Handbook. There are stop-gap solutions such as privacy filters. But should they be necessary?

Related story:   Is this any way to treat a member of the President's Club?

No, say etiquette experts such as Maralee McKee. You should know better than to fire up an episode of Breaking Bad on your Surface 2 while you commute to work, says McKee, who blogs at MannersMentor.com.


“Consume media in public that’s fit for the general public,” she says. “Keep it PG, especially if children are near.”

McKee and other etiquette pros are puzzled that they have to tell their audiences something so basic — that sex, violence and, for that matter, sensitive passwords, are a no-no in public places.

Truth is, most travelers don’t have a clue.

Someone who does is Molly Murphy, the marketing director for a company called Jimmyjane, which manufactures and sells adult toys. Murphy knows that some fellow passengers might object to the, um, electronics she’s reviewing on her laptop, so she goes to great lengths to make sure the content of her screen can’t be seen by anyone.

“I often have multiple tabs open on my computer,” she says. When on a flight, she switches between the tabs as appropriate.

Murphy, like the etiquette experts, believes defusing any conflict between passengers about their electronics starts with an awareness that you’re not on a private plane or bus. Creating more rules (no talking on planes, no texting, no video games) won’t necessarily deepen travelers’ awareness of that fact.

That was the case with Saft, the California therapist with the porno-watching seatmate. Her e-mail complaints to Delta about the incident resulted in a form response that apologized for having “a disruptive passenger on your recent flight.” Saft told me she was “speechless” at Delta’s boilerplate missive.

Related story:   With travel complaints, timing can be everything

I followed up with Delta. Spokesman Russell Cason said the company had a strict policy against displaying X-rated content on its planes.

“We empower our employees to make the best customer-focused decisions possible with the tools or information they have on hand at the moment,” he said.

While it’s right for airlines, trains and bus companies to limit objectionable material, as Delta does, wouldn’t it be even better if we traveled in a world where such a policy was unnecessary?

Should you be allowed to watch porn on a plane?

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Tips

If you want to watch a slasher movie on your iPad without offending your seatmate, Molly Murphy, the sales director for Jimmyjane, offers these tips:

• Get a window seat. It gives you the advantage of rotating your computer screen for more privacy.

• Dim your computer screen. It will draw less attention to your screen and also prevent ambient light leaking into the neighboring seats.

• Get to know your seatmate. “If a younger passenger is next to me I will be more considerate of what is on my screen,” says Murphy.

• Flip between tabs. Use the hot keys for quickly switching between tabs. On a Mac, it’s CMD+TAB; on a PC, CTRL+TAB.



  • Bill___A

    I don’t even know why this has to be discussed. It is obviously wrong.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you can’t even go a couple hours without watching porn…

  • Human beings are programmed to notice movement – its a survival mechanism. So telling someone to “just don’t look” at a small, bright, moving screen is utterly unreasonable. The FA was utterly in the wrong about this. The cabin is a pseudo-public environment, and there is a high probability of minors in the area. No, Porn shouldn’t be allowed.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I was watching something on my PC. :-)

  • Cybrsk8r

    I have to agree that with few exceptions (maybe you’re the sole occupant of the last row), I think that airlines should ban watching porn on the plane. When comes to R-rated movies though, I have the opposite opinion. Unless you’re sttinig next to someone’s kid, I don’t see why you can’t watch “Breaking Bad” just because some kid walking up the aisle MIGHT see your screen.

  • Anthrochick

    I don’t know what this woman considers porn. One person’s porn is another’s True Blood. It is most likely she did not request the name of the skin flick from the seat mate, so whatever she described to Chris could be from an exaggerated point of view. We only have her word that it was porn and not an R rated movie with some nudity that she equates to porn. Just watching the news tells me that there are people across the country with differing views on what constitutes porn. I think it was appropriate that they move her as she was the one with the issue.

  • TonyA_says

    I believe his behavior was criminal. Really? Why?
    Disgusting Criminal.

  • jerryatric

    Simple – manners were lost in the U.S., as well morals a long time ago. It’s all about ME. Entitlement! I paid for my seat I watch what I want & to H with anyone else. That’s the current credo.

  • Extramail

    I’m actually mor surprised that there aren’t simple complaints about the screen light disrupting fellow passengers sleep on long haul flights. As with all technology, the rules have not been decided because it changes so fast and we are so slow to react.

  • Extramail

    Invention opportunity, maybe? Something to block your fellow seat mates viewing?

  • jim6555

    If airlines are going to stop passengers from watching porn, they need to come up with a definition of porn. To a devout Muslim or Ultra-Orthodox Jew, seeing a picture of a woman wearing a modest bathing suit would be offensive. Such a picture would not offend the vast majority of those of other religions and cultures. US and EU based airlines serve many nations in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Israel. I don’t know if it is possible for an airline come up with a standard that pleases everyone.

  • MarkKelling

    Depends on your definition of porn.

    Since we don’t have any descriptions of what was being watched other than the OP stating it was porn, we don’t know what it actually was. It could be an R rated movie that just happens to have nudity. Or it could have been truly disgusting porn. Regardless, people need to be considerate of those around them when deciding what they are going to do even beyond what they choose to watch. Unfortunately, it seems most people these days just don’t care about anything except their own self gratification.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I’d object to the sound of such a video, but not the video itself. You can’t keep sound waves out of your ears, but you CAN avert your eyes. You’re renting the space you’re in, not your neighbor’s space.

  • Mikael Mik

    Two Words: True Detective. You don’t need “Porn” to watch graphic material. A fine line here between good taste and inappropriate. Honestly, buy a privacy screen and watch whatever you want. San privacy screen, REMEMBER people around you ARE WATCHING TOO. So have a little respect.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I’m waiting for Raven to chime in . . .

    I started binge-watching “Breaking Bad” before 2 recent airplane trips. I watched one episode on the first plane trip, in my window seat next to my husband, and realized that if I was averting my eyes at certain moments, then I shouldn’t be viewing this in a public place, as anyone walking by could also watch with me. Every one has their own standards of what they will tolerate – violence, nudity, profanity, etc. If it’s R-rated or NPR, then I need to wait until a less public time to watch. I believe in civility. I also used to believe in the Tooth Fairy, though, so don’t judge me too harshly.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    BWAAAHAHAHA

  • Mikael Mik

    Quagmire: “Heh heh…giggity giggity, alright
    .

  • Nigel Appleby

    I’Im one of those wno don’t sleep on aircraft, so I read. With a Kindle or tablet I don’t need the overhead light on and I turn the screen brightness down as much as possible. However if I was not allowed to use my Kindle, I would be a very unhappy passenger and probably disturb neighbouring passengers with my fidgetting.

  • Trudi

    The rightness and wrongness of watching porn is only a tiny bit of this iceberg. I once sat next to a college student watching a U-tube video of European TV commercials that were absolutely hilarious but never would have been shown in the US. It was risque, but porn? Still shots? Graphic murders? Animals having sex? Who gets to make that call? Do I want airline flight attendents to determine what I read or watch on my IPAD? Nope. If I offended someone else, propriety would deem that I exercise discretion and turn it off or turn it around. If I’m addicted to porn, then I need help, but do I want a flight attendent to be the person that makes that call? (“Excuse me, Sir, I need you to move to our X-rated seating.”) I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would want to watch socially unacceptable media on a crowded airplane except for shock value. Obviously, it worked in this case. I definetly don’t want airlines deciding what is acceptable and what isn’t; if I decide something is unacceptable to me, I’ll move. Other people might have taken a photo of the man and his offensive material and posted it on Facebook … that’s how a lot of people are handling offensive characters these days. Either way, it’s probably a First Ammendment case. I don’t think attendents need that added to their growing list of duties.

  • bodega3

    It isn’t a first amendment right, as a plane is owned by a company and they can allow or not allow a lot of things. If I was sitting next to someone who was watching porn or reading Hustler, you can put money on me requesting a soda and ‘accidentally spilling it on the neanderthal.

  • Trudi

    It’s public transportation following rules dictated by the FAA. If you chose to disable your seatmates computer for your own comfort, that would be your choice. Could the flight attendent confiscate it? Should she? Would she want that responsibility?

  • professortom

    I think you’ve got some bad HTML somewhere. Using Safari on OS X 10.9.2, this particular blog post looks like it’s a mobile page being displayed on my desktop. But the post above it (How to be the world’s smartest travel) looks like it should for a desktop. Just thought I’d give you a heads up.

  • desertlyzard

    This maybe considered a different degree of offensive, (but that degree is a personal moral choice) but I would say before an airline should impose a “censorship” on passenger, they should consider a policy for themselves. I have seen way to many PG-13 movies, swearing, violence, and sexual situations on the airline provided movies then I ever wanted to. And those often aren’t on monitors I can’t easily avoid

  • Thanks – I’ll check it out.

  • professortom

    No problem. Just thought watching your six was the least I could do for the information you supply here free of charge. ;)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I’ve noticed that for the past couple of weeks, as well. But my kitchen laptop has been immune, until today, whereas my office computer has had the funny displays. On both I use Windows 7 OS, Chrome as my internet access, with AdBlock and Ghostery as add-ons to Chrome. ???

  • Miami510

    I voted no… and consider myself to be a libertarian. This discussion raises the same question as
    in our freedom of speech constitutional guarantees; one has the right to free speech, but not the right to shout “fire,”
    in a crowded theater, as the famous quote from a court case said.

    Exposing neighboring seats to pornography is imposing something unwanted on members of the public that have no option but to be
    imposed upon. I’d classify this together with an amorous couple (get what I mean?) on a night flight, or other “anti-social
    deportment” in a public place.

    My banker has a computer screen on her desk which has a screen that blocks views from any angle except someone looking directly at the
    screen. These “filters” are commercially available.

  • Nathan Witt

    As others have pointed out, what’s obscene to you may not be obscene to me. The in-flight entertainment systems frequently offer content on-demand that might offend or upset a parent of a young child or someone whose personal or religious views are on the conservative side. What do we do in those cases? One of my flights recently had on-demand episodes of Glee, which is prime-time TV and (image-wise) relatively tame. If my seatmate witnesses a scene of those two boys kissing and takes offense, who’s responsible for that? And what accomodation, if any, is needed? You say that it’s an “All about ME!” attitutde, but it seems to me that both parties here took that attitude: He wants the right to view material of his choice without consideration for his seatmate, and she says her sensibilities should override his choices. We have indecency laws that prohibit the public consumption of pornography, and if that’s what happened here, the man in question should probably be prosecuted. But if the material fell short of pornography, I think the question’s a little more complicated.

  • emanon256

    I voted no, but sadly I have seen people watching porn on a plane before. United has a written policy that says that customers can watch their own videos as long as they are PG-13 or less. But there are always going to be deviant people out there.

  • emanon256

    Breaking bad was on standard cable too, so probably PG-13 top. No F words, no nudity, etc.

  • emanon256

    My thoughts too. Maybe a deviant, but no grounds for arrest. And its a common carrier, not a private jet.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Umm, no. I got to see a lot of the main character’s pale white backside, topless and near naked women, f-bomb most always muted, many scatological references, plus very, very graphic violence. (Okay, that’s the part I didn’t watch.) Plus the obvious references to a very non-PG-13 lifestyle. Very much R-rated.

  • emanon256

    Wow, sounds like the DVD version differed greatly from the TV version then. There were some body part scenes that were blurred out in the TV version. It did start to get violent towards the end, and I did turn a way for some of those scenes. But on TV they didn’t actually show the gory parts except form a distance or the camera would pan away. I did watch it on basic cable though, so maybe my version was censored.

  • Richard Smith

    This all sounds like the traditional “children on airplanes” discussion/solution. If there were separate sections for children/families and non-children/adults-only, this would only be of concern in the children’s section. That section would be restricted to G-rated content only. The adult section would not have that restriction.

    I’ve twice experienced complaints about my viewing on aircraft. One person objected to my viewing “Kandahar” because it had Arabic subtitles, and a couple years earlier someone complained about “Trainspotting” because it “glorified drug use” (and not the brief nudity.) Neither complaint was made directly to me, and the flight attendants only mentioned it to me after I finished watching….

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Might have been. What didn’t get censored was pretty inconsistent on the version I bought. Sometimes I’d hear f—-, or sometimes silence, or sometimes the first and last consonants. With earbuds in, I was the only person who heard those sounds. But what I saw onscreen sure wasn’t appropriate to share with all my “friends” in a public space!

  • emanon256

    Fortunately I watched Breaking Bad at home, so I didn’t think about it. There have been many other things I have watched on a plane, where I have suddenly had to shut my monitor. Sadly, that even happened during Law & Order episodes and thats on broadcast TV.

  • AL

    Why was she looking at his cellphone?

  • bodega3

    Yes it would be my choice that I would make most happily. Accidents do happen…oops :-) BTW, some carriers do have rules on the type of movies you may watch on your own electronic equipment.

  • sirwired

    This’ll probably get lost in the shuffle, but if you must view potentially offensive (or sensitive) information on your laptop, no need to use lots of tabs, sit in the window seat, chat up your neighbor, or dim the screen. Simply purchase a “privacy filter”; 3M has sold them for literally decades. They reduce the field of view for a computer screen to a very narrow angle. Problem solved.

  • flutiefan

    oh, as an airline employee, i can assure you there are TONS of those complaints.

  • flutiefan

    exactly what i was thinking. thank you for saying it first!

  • polexia_rogue

    you posted what i was going to say; SHE was the one with a problem, so SHE was the one who had to move.

    and that people have VERY different ideas of what constitutes “porn” so it comes down to the flight attendant; does he/she think this is porn? and if so do they have the balls to ask this person to turn it off? (if i was a flight attendant and saw a guy watchiing weird fetish porn i would have had the same response- move the comlainer to he now has a empty seat next to him.)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    True. But an airline can easily come up with some standards that will catch most porn without snagging legitimate films. Perhaps something as simple as anything with an X, XX, or XXX rating.

  • jim6555

    I checked the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system and X, XX and XXX are not official ratings.The strongest rating that they have is “R”.
    Also, even if the plane’s WiFi system was able to snag most of the objectionable films, there is little that can be done when a passenger brings a laptop computer aboard watches a porn flick on DVD or one that is pre-loaded on other media?

  • jim6555

    Which state or nation has jurisdiction to prosecute a passenger in an airplane? Is jurisdiction based on where the aircraft took off, eventually landed or is it based on who’s territory the plane was over when a complaint was made to the flight crew regarding the pornography? If the flight was enroute from New York to Los Angeles, it is doubtful that any state that the plane passed over would want to prosecute a misdemeanor that occurred 35,000 feet above it’s territory. I also doubt that offended party would be willing to travel, at their own expense, to a distant state to testify. What if the plane is over water and hundreds of miles from the nearest land. As far as I know, international law does not prohibit watching a porn movie while in a crowded airplane.

  • MarkieA

    Self-gratification. heh-heh. I see what you did there.

  • Crissy

    I don’t think people should watch porn on a plane, but unless an airline bans it, the FA doesn’t have much choice. However, there is a big difference between watching it next to an adult, who is allowed to watch it, and watching it next to a child. If it’s a child then yes, a FA should step in. If it’s an adult, then really, do something else.

    One problem is that what one person calls porn, may not actually be porn. And what one person finds offensive, may not be offensive to anyone else on the plane. So there will always be issues with this. The same as a violent movie – 10 years ago my own tolerance for a violent movie was completely different, but that doesn’t mean I would tell someone I’m sitting next to not to watch something violent. I just read my own book or watch my own movie.

  • Crissy

    MPAA does officially have the NC-17 Rating, which is what porn would be rated if porn producers sent it for ratings. I think they usually leave it as “unrated” and throw a bunch of X’s on it to make it look more scandalous. I think airlines could easily say that passengers are not permitted to watch anything unrated or rated as NC-17. Airlines from other countries would likely come up with a standard relevant to their own country, and then maybe give examples of similar ratings from other countries as a guide to international guests.

  • omgstfualready

    Stopped reading at: “she adds. “……I believe his behavior was criminal.” “

  • Mel65

    Because of the nature of the work I do, I have those filters for my laptops and they work really well. I’m always amused on planes when a seatmate will say, “Hey your screen is black!” or ask how I can be typing/working when I can’t see anything! I often say “I wear special glasses” or “It’s okay, I’m legally blind” just to see their response.

  • Jan

    It goes back to a lack of consideration for others, whether it is porn or dora the explorer played loudly b/c the child has no headphones to being kicked from behind. I don’t know how any of this can adequately be policed by the flight attendants.

  • sunshipballoons

    I don’t see how this is even a question. The harder question is what to do about R-rated movies.

  • Daddydo

    Malls, department stores, wholesale clubs all offer wi-fi and are able to block pornagraphic material fairly well. I believe that this is indeed the responsability of the airlines to protect my accidental viewing over the shoulder. Another way to may it stop is to ooh and ahh and sing songs with the wrong lyrics into the offending passengers ears until you drive them crazy.

  • pauletteb

    The OP’s seatmate was watching what she considers porn (as other posters have pointed out, that’s her opinion, not necessarily fact) on his cellphone. Even the largest cellphone screen is relatively small — we’re not talking about a laptop or even a tablet here. What he was watching might have been inappropriate, but the OP’s looking closely enough at someone else’s cellphone to know what was on it is equally inappropriate in my mind.

  • JewelEyed

    You’re assuming it was streaming. It may have been stored.

  • parent

    You are not allowed to expose yourself in public. This is no different. Watching nudity and or sexual intercourse next to someone who can see what you are watching is equivalent to exposing yourself in public

  • TonyA_says

    Care to cite the law or some cases to prove your point?
    I don’t think the inside of the airplane or the space that I paid for is PUBLIC.
    It ain’t a sidewalk, sorry.

  • parent

    Have you tried to fly while naked? It’s public space and treated as such

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