April 8, 2013 at 2:12 PM ET
A violent in-flight movie apparently proved to be too much for a family traveling with kids, setting off a chain of events that led to the pilot diverting the flight and an airline taking a second look at its entertainment offerings.
The incident happened on a United flight from Denver to Baltimore on Feb. 2, but is just now coming to light after the family wrote about the experience in a letter to The Atlantic.
In the missive, a Baltimore man – whose name has been withheld – said he was traveling with his wife and their 4-year-old and 8-year-old sons when the movie “Alex Cross” began to play on drop-down screens above the seats.
The film is rated PG-13, according to the Internet Movie Database, which summarizes the plot this way: “A homicide detective is pushed to the brink of his moral and physical limits as he tangles with a ferociously skilled serial killer who specializes in torture and pain.”
Alarmed by the opening scenes, the passenger said he asked two flight attendants to turn off the monitor nearest his kids, but was told it could not be done and that crew members had no authority or ability to change or turn off the movie.
The family then asked if the captain could address the issue, but received no response, according to the letter. About an hour later, the pilot announced the flight was being diverted to Chicago, where authorities questioned the family and the airline booked them on the next flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport, the man wrote.
In the letter, the passenger calls the pilot’s decision to divert an “abuse of power” after what he describes as “collegial” interactions with the crew, with no voices raised and no threats made.
The man also decries “United's decision to inflict upon minors grossly inappropriate cinematic content, without parents or guardians having the ability to opt out.”
“Had this been in a cinema or a restaurant, we would have simply left if the content were too violent, or too sexual, for a preschooler and a 2nd grader. Cruising at 30,000 feet, leaving was not an option,” the passenger wrote.
United confirmed that flight 638 from Denver to Baltimore was diverted to Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport after the crew reported a disturbance involving a passenger.
“The flight landed without incident and the customers were removed from the aircraft,” said United spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm, in a statement to NBC News.
“We reaccommodated the customers on the next flight to Baltimore and have since conducted a full review of our inflight entertainment.”
The airline did not respond to questions about how it chooses movies for flights and whether it was still showing the film that upset the family.
There are no legally mandated guidelines when it comes to what movies airlines can screen, said a spokesman for the Airline Passenger Experience Association. But carriers know they must walk a fine line when deciding what to show to travelers of all ages and backgrounds stuck in a metal tube for several hours.
“Alex Cross” was deemed iffy for kids 14 and younger by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that rates movies for age appropriateness.
“We definitely would not think that that was an appropriate movie for a captive audience at 30,000 feet,” said Colby Zintl, a spokeswoman for the group.
“Airlines should be showing movies that are appropriate for all audiences.”
Common Sense Media doesn’t receive that many complaints from parents about in-flight movies anymore because many airlines no longer use drop-down screens visible to the entire cabin, opting instead to offer monitors in seatbacks, Zintl said.
She advised concerned parents to always bring their own movie-playing gadgets when they fly so that they can easily distract kids on planes that don’t have the newer technology.