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In-Flight Internet Service Comes With New Porn Monitors: Flight Attendants

As if flight attendants didn't have enough to do, they've been handed another job. Say hello to your new mile-high culture police.

With the nation's airlines rolling out in-flight wireless Internet service, and with little if any guidelines established to regulate usage, flight attendants will be in charge of maintaining in-cabin decorum.

If the person sitting next to you or your child is viewing explicit porn and you're not happy about it, feel free to direct your complaint to the flight attendant.

Steve Jones, professor of Internet studies at the University of Illinois and Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said the job of monitor had to fall to someone. "Flight attendants, I mean, do they really need something else to deal with?" he said. "Not really, but somebody has to be designated."

Last week American Airlines became the first to offer unfiltered in-flight Internet access to passengers. Other airlines, including Delta, Alaska and Northwest, will soon roll out non-restrictive services as well.

JetBlue Airways, which already offers free Wi-Fi service in terminals, has chosen to filter some Internet content, and Continental Airlines also plans to provide a service with similar restrictions.

But other international carriers plan on following America's lead by providing unfiltered Internet access — with the exception of Australia's Qantas Airlines, which has announced plans to filter out "objectionable" content.

American Airlines spokesman Charlie Wilson said the airline's unrestricted Internet service, which will cost about $13 per flight, will improve customers' productivity and improve the travel experience.

"We've been working for a solution to help people be productive on flights, whether that's watching a movie, or e-mailing, or doing business," said Wilson.

Tim Maxwell, Vice President of Marketing for Aircell, the company providing American's broadband service, Gogo, said blocking offensive content was discussed, but it was deemed unnecessary by Delta, Virgin and American Airlines, all which use Aircell's service.

"The airlines feel strongly about not limiting content," he said. "You're free to surf wherever you want to, but there's peer pressure and the presence of flight attendants," he said.

"American has [a] clear code of conduct with passengers. If people are viewing pornography, being the best example, it is something American is empowering flight attendants to deal with."

But Sara Nelson of United Airlines' union, Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, said compelling attendants to be the in-flight moral police creates a big problem.

"Flight attendants are already over-taxed," she said. "There is no way we can take on any additional responsibility here." Jones said the union is currently discussing ways to handle this situation. "We have a lot of concerns," she said.

Experts say attendants will be grappling with such moral conundrums as: How many nude scenes make a movie too racy? When does an action flick become too violent? Can a mother complain if her child is seated next to someone watching an R-rated movie or shopping for a bikini on a Victoria's Secret Web site?

Is pornography a concern? "Absolutely!" said Nelson. "We see [pornography] on occasion. If they're in a place where no one can see it, well, on a plane we have to approach it if it's visible, and we have before.

"That's on rare occasions, but [now with Internet] as you increase opportunity, well, we'll see it more."

Jones said most users will likely self-censor to make sure they're not offending others, but there are likely to be some problems.

"You can well imagine a parent flying with a child seated next to somebody, in the extreme case, seated next to somebody watching pornography." said Jones. "There's always going to be someone who probably steps over the line. What's interesting is, the question is, 'how do we deal with this person?"

American Airlines, said it doesn't have a formal content restriction policy, but flight attendants are trained to deal with situations like this.

"Our flight attendants will listen if there are complaints. They're observant and trained and if they see something inappropriate, there's a discreet way to discuss it with the passenger and ask the passenger to put it away, and usually that's what happens," said Wilson.

Federal regulations require customers to comply with flight crew's instructions, and in extreme cases offenders who refuse to listen can be arrested upon landing.

But flight attendants say that they're already spread too thin due to staff and budgets cuts. And in the air, they say, things can escalate quickly.

"We can't kick someone off [an] airplane when we're flying along, so we have to keep things under control, which sometimes means confronting uncomfortable situations," Nelson said.

More importantly, the flight attendants say safety is being compromised.

"We are safety and security professionals — that's our first priority — but we have to manage a whole range of other issues not related to safety and security, but that in an escalated situation could become a safety and security issue," Nelson said.

So what should customers do if they spot someone watching porn or other offensive material in-flight?

Etiquette expert Lizzie Post, of the Emily Post Institute and renowned author Emily Post's great-great-granddaughter, said passengers should remain calm and refrain from being aggressive or accusatory.

"If your own comfort has been disrupted, then you need to speak to a flight attendant about it," said Post. But she warned that as the luxury of travel changes — where free, hot meals have disappeared and you have to pay for peanuts — flight attendants must also exercise patience.

"As much I'd love to say that anyone can do what they want at any time, in small spaces like that you can't go anywhere," Post said. "There's no exit. Like on a train, you can get off, you can change cars. On a plane the next stop is 3600 feet below you."

But airlines like American are confident that unfiltered Internet access won't pose a problem.

"Just as most people have come to set boundaries for cell phone use in public settings, we will see [them] develop social norms for using the Internet in flight," said Wilson.

As for the flight attendants, they say carrying out their many duties while monitoring pornographic content is almost impossible.

"No, no way," said Nelson. "It is just not possible."