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

I'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,…

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…

Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

53 thoughts on “Video Chat on the Plane? Illegal? OK? Legal Gray Area?”

  1. 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.

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