Should you be allowed to watch porn on a plane?

Tom Bilek/Shutterstock
Tom Bilek/Shutterstock
The pornographic images Elizabeth Saft recently glimpsed on her seatmate’s cellphone while she was flying from Sacramento to Minneapolis on Delta Air Lines can’t be described here.

“I told him to stop it,” says Saft, a clinical psychologist from Davis, Calif. “To which he responded: ‘Just don’t look!'”

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She complained to a flight attendant, who relocated her to an open middle seat. “Needless to say, this was extremely distressing, and profoundly unfair to me,” she adds. “I believe the man should have been moved. I believe his behavior was criminal.”

If electronic devices such as cellphones aren’t already a flashpoint between passengers on mass transit, they probably will be soon. Tablets, phablets and laptops can be used almost any time on a commercial aircraft, thanks to a new, more permissive Federal Aviation Administration rule. The government is also reportedly considering allowing wireless calls to be made from planes. But these gadgets can offend fellow passengers in many ways.

The chorus calling for new restrictions on technology is growing louder. But it’s singing the wrong tune. A sounder solution? Adjusting our expectations of privacy in a shared space, upgrading our collective manners and becoming more aware of the intrusiveness of our technology.

It isn’t just that mobile devices are enormous and sport bright, crisp screens. It’s that travelers can’t seem to look away.

Privacy experts call it shoulder surfing, and it does a lot more than offend your seatmate. Having someone read your password while you work online is the cause of “too many” cases of ID theft, according to Denis Kelly, author of The Official Identity Theft Prevention Handbook. There are stop-gap solutions such as privacy filters. But should they be necessary?

No, say etiquette experts such as Maralee McKee. You should know better than to fire up an episode of Breaking Bad on your Surface 2 while you commute to work, says McKee, who blogs at MannersMentor.com.

“Consume media in public that’s fit for the general public,” she says. “Keep it PG, especially if children are near.”

McKee and other etiquette pros are puzzled that they have to tell their audiences something so basic — that sex, violence and, for that matter, sensitive passwords, are a no-no in public places.

Truth is, most travelers don’t have a clue.

Someone who does is Molly Murphy, the marketing director for a company called Jimmyjane, which manufactures and sells adult toys. Murphy knows that some fellow passengers might object to the, um, electronics she’s reviewing on her laptop, so she goes to great lengths to make sure the content of her screen can’t be seen by anyone.

“I often have multiple tabs open on my computer,” she says. When on a flight, she switches between the tabs as appropriate.

Murphy, like the etiquette experts, believes defusing any conflict between passengers about their electronics starts with an awareness that you’re not on a private plane or bus. Creating more rules (no talking on planes, no texting, no video games) won’t necessarily deepen travelers’ awareness of that fact.

That was the case with Saft, the California therapist with the porno-watching seatmate. Her e-mail complaints to Delta about the incident resulted in a form response that apologized for having “a disruptive passenger on your recent flight.” Saft told me she was “speechless” at Delta’s boilerplate missive.

I followed up with Delta. Spokesman Russell Cason said the company had a strict policy against displaying X-rated content on its planes.

“We empower our employees to make the best customer-focused decisions possible with the tools or information they have on hand at the moment,” he said.

While it’s right for airlines, trains and bus companies to limit objectionable material, as Delta does, wouldn’t it be even better if we traveled in a world where such a policy was unnecessary?

Should you be allowed to watch porn on a plane?

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Tips

If you want to watch a slasher movie on your iPad without offending your seatmate, Molly Murphy, the sales director for Jimmyjane, offers these tips:

• Get a window seat. It gives you the advantage of rotating your computer screen for more privacy.

• Dim your computer screen. It will draw less attention to your screen and also prevent ambient light leaking into the neighboring seats.

• Get to know your seatmate. “If a younger passenger is next to me I will be more considerate of what is on my screen,” says Murphy.

• Flip between tabs. Use the hot keys for quickly switching between tabs. On a Mac, it’s CMD+TAB; on a PC, CTRL+TAB.