Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel’s regular series in which Features Editor Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Got a question? Please send questions or comments about travel etiquette to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Questions may be edited.)
Does anyone have the right to tell a fellow passenger to keep his eyeballs to himself?
This question is at the heart of privacy concerns among device-wielding plane passengers. Either you believe that what’s playing on your screen is for your eyes only, or you’re aware that shoulder-surfing passengers can spy your movies, magazines, and games.
Some of the folks who land in the former group are, to some degree, in denial, and have been known to view inappropriate materials in the close quarters of airplane cabins. There have been many reports of porn watching on planes, which, sadly, doesn’t surprise me very much. I haven’t seen any salacious content flashing on fellow flyers’ screens myself, but I spoke to someone who has.
Beth Blair, former flight attendant and co-owner of TheVacationGals.com, told me, “I was working a flight out of Burbank, CA, and an adult-film editor and his cohorts began editing X-rated footage. A family with a child was sitting behind them. As soon as I noticed, I told them the video needed to be turned off, especially because of the child behind them. Rather than do the respectful thing and power down, the passengers pulled out a stack of newspapers and made a private tent over their seats and continued working. That obviously wasn’t the first time they worked on the plane. Luckily, there wasn’t any audio.”
Flight-attendant intervention is clearly the best course of action when porno happens on planes. Said Blair, “Hopefully, if the flight attendant gets involved, passengers are responsive. Otherwise officials may have to meet the plane to deal with the problem.”
But what about shoulder-surfing passengers?
It can be annoying, to put it mildly, to feel the intrusive gaze of a stranger on your tablet or laptop screen. It’s doubly annoying or even obstructive when working with sensitive materials. Alas, what’s on your screen isn’t exactly for your eyes only when you’re on a plane.
According to Blair, “Often there’s not much passengers can do about shoulder surfing, since plane seats are in such tight quarters. I have had passengers ask to change seats because nosy passengers kept trying to read over their shoulders. Usually those situations were work-related.”
Blair recommends privacy screens and earbuds; I second this and add that quality headphones—the kind that don’t leak sound like a poorly muffled speaker—are the best choice for air travel.
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