Recently a United Airlines flight attendant notified a passenger that he must abandon a video-messaging session with his family during a flight. However, little did the flight attendant know the person they prohibited from using iChat was John Battelle, the founder of Wired, a popular tech magazine.
Shortly after being told to shut down he blogged about his experience during the flight. In his rant, he described having a conversation with the flight attendant about United Airlines’ reasoning behind the request. The flight attendant only offered Mr. Ballelle an explanation about United’s policies which stated “two-way communication” to the ground was not allowed during flight. Apparently, United was unaware that they even offered Wi-Fi.
Battelle isn’t the only one experiencing trouble using two-communication on public transportation. In June of 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts threatened to sue the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) over unwritten policies prohibiting the use of digital photography (Cell phones, DSLRs, etc.) of or on transportation vehicles. The ACLU of Massachusetts stated, “We respectfully submit, however, that prohibiting photographs of or on transportation vehicles in full view of the public is neither reasonable nor necessary.” MBTA responded with calling the ACLU’s written statement “insulting and naive,” using public transport bombings in London and Madrid as a Post Hoc argument. The MBTA also claims power of discretion in which photographs will be allowed and which ones are prohibited. Traditionally, photos of family members have been considered not a threat. Great, now I can get a picture of grandma next to the train – but not of someone that could be labeled suspicious.
Both the ACLU and Mr. Battelle have the First Amendment on their side; video chatting with family members and taking photos on public transportation is still technically legal. While no one to date has been charged criminally for taking photos in Massachusetts, video chat is clearly an issue with the airlines. Since neither practice is against the law, why would it be an issue? MBTA says because of terrorism and United says the same thing, except just a little different. United ultimately said – in a roundabout way – using video chat programs like Skype could potentially annoy your single-serving friend next to you. So while the Constitution of the United States says it’s okay to use cameras in public places, United Airlines and the MBTA says nay–in a Martin-Luther-separation-of-Christianity-kind-of way.
United Airline’s argument was using Skype mid-flight would disturb others. As if the 250 pound woman with elbow-cleavage who needs two seats isn’t that much of an inconvenience. MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas says, “We need to consider ourselves as prime targets for terrorism.” As if everyone and anything else isn’t? If two-way communication is genuinely a safety threat, then the airlines should be describing the nature of the threat rather than simply saying it’s matter of etiquette mid-flight; and if cameras on public transportation is breaching security then they need to admit reluctance, accept technology, and treat it as a service and not a threat.