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Video Chat on the Plane? Illegal? OK? Legal Gray Area?

By - March 10, 2010

201003101937.jpgI’m writing this at around 36,000 feet, on a United Airlines flight between New York and San Francisco. That’s not so unusual – anymore – Wifi had been on planes for over a year now, and I’ve grown accustomed to the service.

Why? Well, because my family also has Wifi, and my kids can now gather around any one of our home computers, fire up iChat, and BAM! they can see me even as I zip across the Nebraska sky at some 400+ mph.

Except tonight, as I was chatting with my lovely wife and two lovely daughters (much to the amusement of my seat mates, using Bose headphones and my MacBook’s built in microphone), the very nice steward – who I must note brought me extra nuts even though he didn’t have to – told me I had to quit my video chat.

“Security. Cameras not allowed!” was the response. There was clearly no argument.

Screen shot 2010-03-10 at 7.17.08 PM.pngI protested, but not too loudly. I don’t want to end up stripped searched in a cold basement cell below SFO, after all. I told my family I had to quit the video chat. My girls were not pleased – today my oldest got a new bed and REALLY wanted to show it off (and let me tuck her into it from an airplane. I mean, how cool is that?! Isn’t that what Cisco makes the commercials about? Or AT&T back in 1994?! You Will? Until someone tells you that you won’t!). My wife spent three hours putting it together, and she wanted me to see it too. (Well really, she wanted me to see the look on our daughter’s face when I saw it, anyone who’s a parent will understand…)

So what’s a curious guy to do? To the Internet! Which is exactly what I did. Responses starting pouring in. Including one from a pal at the State Department, who echoed my basic goal: To use video chat to tuck my kids into bed isn’t a crime. Or at least, shouldn’t be.

Anyway, this is clearly a wonderful charlie horse. The flight attendant just showed me the United policy manual which prohibits “two way devices” from communicating with the ground. However, the PLANE HAS WIFI. To combat this, not unlike China, United and other airlines have blocked Skype and other known video chat offenders. Apparently, they missed Apple iChat. Oops.

DOH! It’s a conundrum! More on this as it develops. My pal at State is working on it….

At least I can still write a post from 36,000 feet. Kids, you’ll have to wait for the tuck-in…for now. (Despite my son and wife’s attempt at busting me by repeatedly inviting me to new video chats…)
(image credit )
Update: My pal at State says she can’t find any government rule against video chat on a plane. She did point me to this FAA fact memo, which says the reason Skype et al are blocked are to stop chatty folks like me from bumming out their seatmates. Not exactly the same logic used by my otherwise stellar United flight attendants…

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  • Will

    Two way Devices? Like say for example AirFone? Or email, or IM? Oh, wait it has a camera, and has we all know from our allies in the war on terror in Britain, cameras are exclusively used by terrorists. The worst part about this is that you are right, you could go to jail for disagreeing with the steward about this. I mean hey, if you can get interrogated for asking for OJ, imagine what the penalty for Video Chat is!
    Regardless of how nice they are, (or more usually aren’t) inadequately trained people with two much power, are still a bigger threat to us than any terrorist.

  • steve mcd

    Discourteous it is, but probably not illegal. Bottom line: technological advances in two-way communication far surpass social acceptance of constant dialogue through electronic devices. Despite how cool it is, fellow passengers are within their right to be peeved.

  • http://blog.joeandrieu.com Joe Andrieu

    You weren’t communicating with the ground. You were communicating with the WiFi device. The WiFi got your packets to some flying modem in the sky that actually communicated with the ground. The rule, in any sensible reading, is for direct communication. If the actually air-to-ground link is over airline hardware, you’re good to go, just like using an AirFone. I think the flight attendant was just being safe–simple, but “safe” in her mind.

  • http://sikachu.com Prem

    So they block those Skype and iChat to make you using their expensive in-flight call instead, if you want to have voice conversation?

    Just thinking :)

  • http://www.bigjobsboard.com/ bigjobsboard

    I think I agree with prem. They just want to block these chat apps so the passengers would be forced to use the plane’s call service. That could definitely cost some money.

  • Bertil

    Very glad that the first guy who tries that wants to “tuck his baby girl into her new bed” [Cute overload, buffer error: Fox called, they can't feature your story, it's way too over-the-top — you even manage to stick a DIY Mom in there] instead of asking “Hey, the blue wire goes into what part of the explosive again?” Thanks to you, we might be able to videochat on the plane. You Sir, Won The Internet today.

    It’s sad regulations are so story-dependant, but I’m glad because now we can ask: what about ChatRoulette on the plane?

  • http://jenniferwernethphotography.com wedding photographers in Orlando

    up in a plane I don’t want anything that could mess with the planes equipment, even if its proven that it wont who wants to take that chance

  • http://swildstrom.wordpress.com Steve

    How’d you get Wi-Fi on a United flight?

    @Prem–Those Airfones were turned off several years ago because no one was using them. In fact, AirCell, which runs the GoGo Wi-Fi service, is using the former Airfone spectrum.

    If the plane has Wi-Fi, the question of interference is irrelevant. In fact. every plane is full of laptops broadcasting a 2.4 MHz looking for access points because no one turns the Wi-Fi radios off. The technical issue is whether there’s enough bandwidth to support a video chat. The other issue is whether the chat will drive your seatmates nuts. Those issues, not some economic conspiracy, is why most carriers bloc Skype and VoIP.

  • Rick on the Road

    The whole argument comes down to the people sitting next to you. It’s exactly the same thing as smoking used to be on an airplane. Light up, I really don’t care. I just don’t want to be sitting 24 inches away from you when you do. Likewise, talk to your children, talk to your boss, your customers, your girlfriend, your angry spouse, your bored teenage friends. Talk all you want. Just sit somewhere else where I won’t be. For every 1 person who quietly and respectfully tucks his kids into bed by computer or cellphone, there are 2-3 others who are blatantly and annoyingly inconsiderate. On a bus, I am free to get up and move to another seat. On an airplane, I can’t.

  • Kevin T.

    OMG. Terror. 9/11.

    The flight attendant’s misguided “video chat is a terrorist tool” attitude speaks volumes about the media- and government-fueled paranoia suffusing the air travel industry.

    If the terrorists were really so hell-bent on attacking us, we’d be seeing suicide bombers left and right. Real suicide bombers, the kind that actually blow up good. At the crowded airport security lines. In the packed subways. At the mall. In schools.

    It’s not happening. And if the terrorists aren’t swarming all the soft targets out there, I rather doubt that the airliner “hard targets” are much at risk from dastardly video-coordinating terrorists.

    And you know what: the terrorists WANT us to over-react like this. They want us to be terrorized. They only win if we let them, if we let any flight attendant become a petty I’ll-ban-videochat-on-a-terrorism-pretext paranoid tyrant, if we call this the “new normal.” Don’t let them win.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    Flight attendants aren’t trained for subtlety, nice as many of them are. Their jobs depend on them stopping certain things from happening, and that list is long. I can’t imagine an attendant erring on the side of allowing something, knowing that might be the end of his or her career.

    United is new to Wi-Fi, with a small number of planes equipped just on its p.s. routes. If you had flown Delta, the attendant would have politely said that the airline doesn’t allow audio calls (with or without video), but wouldn’t have tried to claim it was illegal.

    Joe Andrieu is correct: the two-way ban is limited to devices that communicate with the ground directly.

  • http://nseriesus.com matthew bennett

    I’m surprised that no one has brought up this point : it’s a felony to disobey requests from *any* member of the flight staff. So if a flight attendant tells you to stay in your seat and you don’t, you’re commiting a felony. It doesn’t matter what the rules on the ground are, in the airplane, the staff can make the rules.

    And I agree that it’s stupid to have flight staff making uninformed claims about technology, but their jobs are hard enough already, so I’ll cut them some slack.

  • http://tech.phreadz.com kosso

    I wonder if “asynchronous” video posts are allowed? A la ‘Phreadz’?

    (More like a video forum rather than chat)

    Or are cameras banned totally?

    How about audio? (live or asynchronous)

  • Court

    Shortly after 911, my partner and I took a Circle Line Cruise around Manhattan. They were taking pictures of people before they boarded — for souvenirs of course and to make a profit.
    We were told we HAD to have our picture taken for security reasons and I went off.
    The young person backed off.

    I know this isn’t the same thing, but people use the security excuse all the time to get what they want.

  • fermata

    please don’t ever sit next to me on a flight. thank you.

  • http://www.techlicious.com Josh

    The issue here is primarily about courtesy. Chatting with your daughters on a flight is likely not “amusing” to your fellow passengers.

    However, it is a tricky issue for flight attendants to enforce “courtesy”, as they have to make judgment calls about when someone is crossing the line, which will undoubtedly lead to conflict/arguments with passengers. It’s much easier to simply use the “security policy” excuse. It may be a lame reason, grounded in faulty technical/safety logic, but it’s one that passengers can’t argue with.

  • http://battellemedia.com John

    As much as Peter Kafka would like this to be about my boorish behavior, in fact, I made sure my seatmate (there was only one) could not hear my kids, nor me speaking (when I did, which was not much). He had Bose headphones on. I make sure if I do video chats, that it never interferes with anyone around. I fly about 150K miles a year, and I would never be rude like that.

  • Ed Sanders

    Man you are really douche! What gives you the right to talk to anyone on your computer, really you actually thought for a moment it was OK? Think of other people for once and not just that your rights have some how been violated. IM, email, paint little pictures but keep your trap shut. What a waste.

  • http://battellemedia.com John

    Gee Ed, I dunno. This “douche” figured it was OK since phones have been on planes for, oh, 15 years or so.

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Are people seriously against making a non-pornographic video call on a plane?

    Air-phones, idiots. They’re in the backs of small planes, the backs of seats in large ones, and they allow communication with someone that isn’t in the plane…. *wow!*

    1984 called, and it wants its mock-horror back. Fermata? Josh? Ed Sanders?

    Boo-friggin’-hoo.

    As someone who flies roughly once per week, what I can say is that I’ve read through things like the Gogo terms of service. High-bandwidth uses (rather fuzzy line) are may be throttled or blocked.

    Bug United and demand two things:

    1) A refund for *at least* your internet service charges.
    2) Education of this attendant, and all other flight attendants, on the *actual* restrictions on in-flight wifi.

  • Ed Sanders

    Mathew, Mathew, Mathew,
    Assness is Assness be it now or then,
    1984 called and you were that ass that picked up the phone. Dude there is a reason why they called the inflated price they charged for those calls an AssTAX.
    Think about other people. That’s all, more so now then ever. There is no reason now to have to use a phone in the air or ichat or anything that will disturb other people. Use IM, Email or Paint pictures just don’t assume we want to hear your conversation.

  • http://battellemedia.com John

    Ed, and Mathew, and all – I think we can find middle ground. Don’t make a call if it’s rude or impinges. Ask. Feel the situation out. My God, TALK to someone next to you. “Hey, is it OK if I call my kids before they go to bed? Won’t take but a minute.”

    Sheesh.

  • Ed Sanders

    John OK your right, a little polite will go a long way, even for me that seems reasonable.

    But keep it short;)

  • davidwr

    If that’s United’s policy, that’s their policy. If it’s within the captain’s discretion, then it’s within the captain’s discretion, he’s master of his plane. Live with it or fly another airline.

    Assuming no other major carriers have this policy, this will bite them in the wallet.

    However, if they are pretending it’s a law or regulation, they had better be prepared to back that up.

  • davidwr

    matthew bennett said on March 11, 2010 11:37 AM: “I’m surprised that no one has brought up this point : it’s a felony to disobey requests from *any* member of the flight staff.”

    Not entirely true, at least not in practical terms:

    *The request must be lawful. If a sadistic flight attendant wants to get her jollies by asking me to kill the guy in the seat next to me, I won’t cooperate.

    *Even if technically lawful, an unreasonable request can result in very vocal complaints and may wind up getting the airline into trouble in civil court or with airline regulators. Sure, a flight attendant could tell everyone to swap seats with the person next to them just because she can, but watch the media circus that generates.

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Who died and made Ed the arbiter of all things polite?

    There is no middle ground between “holding a conversation with someone not present is impolite” and “holding a conversation with someone not present is not impolite.”

    I’m not suggesting screaming at someone, taking up someone else’s space, or saying anything offensive (all of which could be done with a phone or otherwise).

    Someone chatting with headphones is no different than the E and F seats in an MD-80 having a conversation when you’re sitting in D. Maybe you can’t horn in if you only hear one side, but, seriously, where’s the problem?

    Ed brought out “douche,” “assness,” and (mis)typing my name three times to bring in a tone of condescension. When we look around for the impolite behavior, it appears that whoever smelt it has, in the end, dealt it.

    Seriously, Ed, you’re a holier than thou asshole.

    John, sorry for the scrap on your blog (which I discovered thanks to this post), but I stand for Ed’s stupidity as much as I stand for the reasonless rationale of some random United attendant. The middle-ground between reasonable and stupid is, plainly, just a little more stupid.

  • http://elatable.com Bradley Horowitz

    This happened to me too… on a Virgin America flight. The flight attendant was really gracious and said he knew it was stupid, but regulations…

  • http://fastforwardacademy.com enrolled agent

    Regulations or not, I still think it is an invasion of my rights. I mean, If I was in John’s shoes, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was communicating with my family. And the plane provided me access to that so why prevent me from doing what I want when in the first place, they allowed the tool that I am using?

  • Glenn Fleishman

    “They’re in the backs of small planes, the backs of seats in large ones, and they allow communication with someone that isn’t in the plane”

    These have largely (perhaps entirely?) been removed. Verizon AirFone was the last of only a couple in-flight phone systems, and near the end was getting an average of a couple of calls made per flight.

    The spectrum was reallocated, auctioned, and sold to Aircell and JetBlue’s LiveTV division. Aircell operates the service on all current commercial in-flight Internet, including John’s United p.s. flight.

    Back when I worked at Amazon in 96-97, Jeff Bezos would call all the time from the air, which make sense given the state of the business and the speed of the Internet. I wondered how much business information all his seatmates extracted from his calls (even though he was discrete, but loud).

  • Ed Sanders

    Mathew,Matthew,Mathue
    Really you see no difference between an ichat and a conversation? As the arbiter between all things polite let me brief you on the differences. If you have a conversation with the person next to you it a mutual thing. I say something they either say something back or blow me off and I’m back to my book. With an ichat you don’t get that choice. Some guy flips open his computer and starts gabbing away. Kind of like the asses who watch a movie on their laptop with out headphones. (I hate that) See the difference here big guy. Its really rude to assume people sitting next to you are Ok with your ichat. I will agree with John that feeling out the situation is probably the best. I know if I was sitting next to someone and they asked if I didn’t mind, hell why not, you don’t know what the situation is and maybe his kid will sleep better with a goodnight from Dad. (I may even hum a lullaby in the background to contribute to the event).

    What blows me away is the attitude that somehow it’s your right to do.
    That is defiantly douchee.

  • fan123

    airplanes give off so much radiation – and now we have to deal with all the emfs bouncing all around from wireless – I hate it.

    when they get those awful scanners in too many airports (which many people acknowledge is dangerous esp from frequent fliers) it just gets worse. oh well, t o each their own health.

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Ed,
    Is it “douchee” or “douchey?” I’ve seen both.

    I never said that I saw no difference between iChat and a conversation, but there is no *functional* difference for a third party (hence the use of seats D, E, F in my example).

    If you’re next to a dude talking to someone else or next to a dude talking to iChat, you’re not part of the conversation, but you get to hear it.

    I stick to IM and email because I don’t want to be a bandwidth pig, and I’d typically rather talk to the real human next to me. That said, it’s plainly ridiculous to think that someone *doesn’t* have the right to hold a conversation that you’re not in. They don’t need to be any louder to use a computer. If they use a headset, they can actually be significantly quieter than someone holding a conversation with another passenger.

  • http://united.com Robin Urbanski

    Thanks everyone for your good feedback.

    We are sorry for what transpired onboard and are happy to refund Mr. Battalle for the WiFi service he purchased on this flight.

    Gogo®, a service of Aircell, provides WiFi service for United – and most major U.S. airlines – and has a consistent policy that addresses how VoIP service may not be used inflight. This policy is stated on the Gogo web site, in its terms and conditions, and in the seatback information card.

    iChat – as well as most VoIP services – has long been disabled. We are working closely with Aircell to find out what happened and how access was enabled.

    That said, it is very likely that the flight attendant did not know what Mr. Battalle was doing and therefore referred to our onboard video policy vs. the VoIP policy.

    We’ve done a lot of research with our customers and the majority of them have told us (and most other U.S. airlines too) that they enjoy peace and quiet while traveling and that is why VoIP service is not available.

    This is a great learning opportunity for all of us at United to better understand our customers’ needs onboard so we can better respond to them when situations like this come up.

    Kind Regards,
    Robin Urbanski
    United Airlines

  • http://united.com Robin Urbanski (United)

    Thanks everyone for your good feedback.

    We are sorry for what transpired onboard and are happy to refund Mr. Battalle for the WiFi service he purchased on this flight.

    Gogo®, a service of Aircell, provides WiFi service for United – and most major U.S. airlines – and has a consistent policy that addresses how VoIP service may not be used inflight. This policy is stated on the Gogo web site, in its terms and conditions, and in the seatback information card.

    iChat – as well as most VoIP services – has long been disabled. We are working closely with Aircell to find out what happened and how access was enabled.

    That said, it is very likely that the flight attendant did not know what Mr. Battalle was doing and therefore referred to our onboard video policy vs. the VoIP policy.

    We’ve done a lot of research with our customers and the majority of them have told us (and most other U.S. airlines too) that they enjoy peace and quiet while traveling and that is why VoIP service is not available.

    This is a great learning opportunity for all of us at United to better understand our customers’ needs onboard so we can better respond to them when situations like this come up.

    Kind Regards,
    Robin Urbanski
    United Airlines

  • Ed Sanders

    Your actions would defiantly be douchee.

    Also douchee would be, people who assume they can ichat in public on a crowded plane or have the right to.

    Wow can’t believe I have to even argue this point.

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Ed, let’s just agree that you’re a condescending ass (who fails to answer the comparison of third party conversations) and be done with it.

    There’s not much else to say on the matter.

  • Narg

    It’s not hard to understand the FAA’s take on video conferencing. After all, the world has completely lost it’s ability for simple courtesy, especially in small enclosed spaces. So, John, shame on you for disrupting those around you. Gees.

  • Ed Sanders

    Matt
    Ok, I’ll agree with that as long as you agree that your the douche bag whose going to try to Ichat in a plane full of people. As far as the 3rd party thing…I don’t care just don’t talk to your laptop when your sitting next to me. It’s been fun let’s do this again with smoking on an elevator, or playing load music in a llibrary.

  • http://www.mattsnod.com Matthew Snodgrass

    Yes, John, wise choice to shut it down. Just goes to show that industry needs to keep up with technology. One will always pass the other.

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Ed,
    I never said that I’d iChat on a plane. In fact, I said that I text-chat and email on planes. I’ll make an exception if I ever find that I’m sitting next to *you* on a plane.

    The parade of straw-men and middle-school name-calling is hardly a good way to try to make your point.

    Now, as far as not answering the third party comparison in a meaningful sense…

    Just go get your head checked, cowboy. The rest of us know how to keep from getting inflamed over the small stuff. If someone holds a door open? Great. If they don’t? I’m not going to go crap in their corn-flakes. We already have more than the recommended daily allowance of righteous indignation.

    It also wouldn’t hurt to proof-read for typos, unless you’re too lathered up over a web conversation to read through the tears.

    Sheesh…

  • anonymous

    Go home and be with your kids in person and stop complaining. How long have you been away from home that you don’t even have time to help pick out your kid’s furniture? sheesh.

  • debbie

    I agree with the folks who are pointing out the author’s lack of courtesy. There is an incredible discourtesy permeating our culture regarding people’s right to silence. I stand next to people in the post office line who chat non-stop on their cell phones as if it wasn’t horrible enough that I am stuck in that long line. (I have asked people to get off their phone in the post office and in the doctor’s waiting room. They give me a rude look but always get off.) The discourtesy astounds me almost as much as their blindness to many strangers around them hearing about their personal fluff. Now this author thinks that the people who are trapped on an airplane should have to listen to a one-sided conversation with his family? FYI, it’s NOT cute if you don’t have a choice and you can’t drown out the sound with noise canceling headphones if it’s in the seat next to you. How astoundingly rude. I applaud the flight attendant who found a polite way to stop him. I would have leaned over and stopped him myself in a less polite way.

  • Rox

    Just out of curiosity… I am a deaf person, and I use videochat to make phone calls. I do not use my voice, nor do I listen to anybody talking. I use sign language to communicate, and watch the person signing back to me on my screen. Would this bother anyone on a flight?

  • http://matthew.chaboud.com Matthew Chaboud

    Rox,
    I’m curious about how you use video and signing. How fast do you think that you can speak by signing as compared to typing? I’m surprised that a cursory search doesn’t turn up ASL->Text web-cam products. I find only limited research.

    Nonetheless, I suspect that the technophobes around here are crafting some sort of moral outrage just for you.

    Next they’ll claim a right to have you not waiving your hands in their peripheral vision. Heaven forbid someone merely have a preference that they don’t claim as a right.

    The idyllic world being one where everyone operates in silence in public places is the world imagined by those with no friends. Whether that’s cause or effect is a question for another day.

  • http://www.going2media.com New Jersey SEO

    I think this is more of an issue of good manners more than anything. I am not saying an airplane flight should be a library, but people want to nap, some are nervous, and some are concentrating on work.

  • ~Aural*Exciter~

    commenting on:
    “it’s a felony to disobey *requests* from any member of the flight staff”.
    Now this is a conundrum, for obviously, the [said] request…ain’t. It’s an ORDER, or DEMAND. (unless, of course, it’s used as a noun, but then it needs to be presented in writing, within a legal paper or contract container. But I digress…)

  • Jonathan

    I’m confused. Ed, Debbie, why is it rude to talk on a cell-phone or web chat but not rude to chat to that same person when they are standing or sitting next to you. How is it that two people next to you chatting doesn’t disturb you and yet one person chatting does?

    Isn’t it more about how the person conducts the conversation? If they shout or talk with an excessive volume then, yes, i could understand your dismay. But that applies to all senarios.

    Perhaps you could

  • Jamie

    My guess is, and it’s just a guess, that with the headphones on, your voice was louder than usual and you were annoying the Hell out of people around you, which is how the flight attendant became aware of what you were doing and put a stop to it.

  • Rainsy

    Gotta agree with everyone who thinks this is a no-no.
    It all gets down to manners, I would,not want someone sitting beside me bellowing into a phone, etc (everyone seems to talk louder into an electronic device)
    But then my idea of a good plane trip is a good book and/or time to relax and have a sleep.

  • Ed Sanders

    Mathew,
    I don’t know seems like the name calling worked. It’s the best way to point out what most people are thinking anyway, also yeah I should proof my posts, I’ll give you that one. And yes the third party thing is still not relevant. There is a big difference between ichat and a conversation and if you can’t tell the diff well then my .edu friend don’t do either as you would surely annoy the people around you either way.

    sheeesh

  • Unknown

    Lets settle this and say that their is nothing unlawful about it and that the flight attendant was just saying that because it can annoy other people.

  • Ann

    Thank you for information you have written. It will eventually offer me and my friends what to think about while I travel to florida vacation

  • http://twitter.com/Natj01 Natalie

    You can Facebook Video Chat!