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Our luggage was securely stowed. Seat belts pressed snugly against our laps. The onboard safety demonstration was coming in for a landing ("In case of a rapid loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will…"). The aircraft itself looked brand new. No doubt the pilots had undergone years of rigorous flight training. But were we really safe?

Looking back, the answer was "no." But I'm no crash survivor. Rather, the peril of that Air Canada hop across the Atlantic was much more subtle. An R-rated video was about to play in the economy cabin where I, my wife and our two pre-teen children sat captive.

Shortly after the planned showing was announced over the PA, I began to wonder if we weren't headed into some turbulence. Without immediate access to Plugged In's extensive list of online film reviews, I couldn't know for sure. I decided to ask a steward about the airline's policy on the family-appropriateness of in-flight films. He assured me that all movies would be acceptable for all audiences. Could I really trust him? I wanted to. My kids wanted me to (they were eager to pass the time with anything besides homework).

As I waited, I recalled a letter I received from a woman who faced a similar situation with her 13-year-old daughter onboard a U.S. Airways flight. She felt trapped and visually assaulted by sexual scenes they never would have chosen to view. (Although passengers can decline the headset, an occasional glance is all but unavoidable when the screen is front and center.) Along with her letter was a copy of the correspondence she sent to U.S. Airways chairman Stephen Wolf: "I innocently watched the previews trusting that what was to be shown would be appropriate for a family audience. I was offended, appalled and shocked as they portrayed a young woman being undressed." She proceeded to describe other sexual clips, and concluded, "I am sad that [my daughter] and I now have inappropriate sexual images registered in the computers of our minds."

I was ushered back to my own dilemma by the sound of the "fasten seat belts" chime. Because I didn't want anything inappropriate to register in the "computers" of my children's minds, I played it safe and told my kids to stick with their homework. I hated to do it, but I'm glad I did. Despite being assured that all Air Canada movies were family friendly, I quickly realized that, had this one been a CD, it would have come with a parental advisory sticker. Dozens of uncensored f-words and numerous other profanities later, I felt as if I'd been tied to the mast of a sinking ship.

I arrived home with a severe case of jet lag and, at 3:30 a.m., hammered out a letter to Air Canada. Their form-letter response was a brush off. "We share your concerns," it read. Not content with "corporate speak," I persisted in seeking an answer and finally got through to Patrick Lappas, the man responsible for Air Canada's inflight programming. Lappas vouched for the airline's commitment to provide family entertainment and seemed genuinely concerned. So how did an R-rated movie "slip through"? He was at a loss to explain.

Maybe your family has experienced a similar mid-air collision with an airline's poor judgment. Write to us. Tell us about it. More importantly, write to the airline and tell them about it. Be respectful, but firm. It's the only way to affect change in policies that can impact thousands of families. If you've never shared my experience, good for you! To keep it that way, it never hurts to call an airline ahead of time to learn more about the movie schedule.

Next time you're buckled in tight and being told to put your seat back in an upright position, remember that safe air travel involves more than just a knowledge of exit doors and flotation devices. As we fly the usually friendly skies, let's keep in mind that the people piloting the onboard video player may have fallen asleep at the switch.

Published July 2000