Censorship On Inflight Entertainment – Who Decides What You Watch?

Few events are filled with as much anticipation and excitement as flicking through the movie catalog on your flight. You’re looking for new releases, your favorite re-runs, or a series you’ve yet to get stuck into. But what happens when what you’re watching isn’t quite what you’re expecting?

Virgin Aircraft
Who gets to say what you watch? Photo: Getty Images

Deleted scenes and edited originals may be what you’ve come to expect, but have you ever given any thought to how those films get edited? Who decides what you do and don’t watch, and what relevance does that decision have? Why should what you watch on a plane be different from at the movie theater?

Who chooses what you watch?

When it comes to who chooses what you watch on your flight, the simple answer is your airline. It’s their brand, and they will show whatever they want, taking into consideration their clientele. They’ll take special care to ensure that movies and tv shows don’t offend their customers while also selecting some of the most recent and well-loved content.

However, some airlines in the past have been challenged on the content that they show. When asked about why scenes have been edited in a certain way, some will renounce the fact that they’ve even had a choice in the matter. It seems a strange admission, but there is some truth to it. While airlines have the ultimate say on what does and doesn’t get shown, they have no power over the intricacies.

United Airlines Premium economy
Airlines can’t be specific on scenes. Photo: United Airlines

Here’s how the process works:

  • When a film is released, airlines have the option to show the original or ask for an edited license.
  • If it requires an edit, the airline will send a request off to a third party editing company that will take into account the airline’s content guidelines.
  • The company will then edit the film where they see fit and send it back to the airline.
  • If the airline is happy with the content, it will be shown on board. If not, they can opt to remove the movie from their choice list.

Why does entertainment need to be censored?

As you can see, airlines have very little say about which specific scenes in individual movies get the chop. It’s the editing company that interprets the guidelines and makes the necessary edits. That can mean that films come back with essential scenes removed due to their guideline infringement. This, understandably, can upset some viewers. So, why censor anything at all?

The answer is that airlines need to keep their customers happy. Cutting scenes sometimes might have the opposite effect, but they need to be conscious of how their passengers will respond.

American airlines man enjoys film with wine
Passenger satisfaction depends on the content airlines show. Photo: American Airlines

Some editing will happen for scenes that undermine passenger safety. This could be things like plane crashes, which would worry some nervous flyers. However, other instances include, and are not limited to:

  • bad language;
  • sexual references;
  • nudity; and
  • violence.

For some, it’s also a cultural thing. Global Eagle Entertainment is a third party inflight-entertainment editing company that works with around 60 international airlines. On its website, one of its main selling points is that it,

“…can provide the perfect package of inflight entertainment content to match your customer’s cultural and demographic profile.”

For that reason, you won’t catch some airlines showing LGBTQ+ romances where it is against the practices of a dominant religion. Likewise, nudity and sexual scenes may be cut back. That sounds fair enough, so what’s the issue?

Child on trunki at airport
Airlines must think about their customers. Photo: Getty Images

Viewer discretion and normalization vs. the airline

While some inflight entertainment viewers may be fine with a few cut scenes and question motives no further, others believe that excessive film editing propagates archaic stereotypes. Deleting certain scenes may not be seen as progressive.

Another concern is for filmmakers. They may see their art manipulated in a way that they did not intend. Messages can be skewed, and their reputation damaged by what may be considered a poor movie post-inflight-editing.

However, an even more significant challenge to navigate is precisely who is right in saying what things remain in and out of a movie. We all have different opinions and come from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, those who subscribe to specific religions and belief systems may have differing views on certain topics. But there’s a crucial choice that airlines need to make: will viewers be more, or less, offended with the inclusion of this scene?

Woman listens to film on BA
Airlines must ask: will viewers be offended by the content we show? Photo: British Airways

Arguments for censorship

It’s a tough choice for airlines to make. If they know that their customers are of a particular persuasion, it’s respectful to show consideration for their views.

Likewise, the airlines themselves may have their own philosophy. They will not want to openly promote actions, beliefs, or concerns outside of their interest as a brand. It could lose them custom in the future and alter their image.

When it comes to setting out their guidelines, airlines must also obey local laws and customs. They will also want to consider what kinds of travelers they will have at certain times of the year, like children during the summer vacation season.

Mom and son on AA flight
Airlines must also be conscious of what to show children. Photo: American Airlines

Yet, as many arguments as there are for censorship, there is an equal amount against it, and many of them boil down to this: do airlines have a duty to respect cultural shifts?

Should airlines progress with the times?

Many personal identities and ideologies have now been cemented within many parts of modern culture. The way the world works now is based on inclusion for all. Should airlines respect this equality through the content they show? If airlines choose not to, they could be seen to deny certain identities.

What’s more, like watching any film outside of a plane, viewer discretion is advised. Age ratings serve to suggest the appropriateness of movies, and they usually come with advisory notices of what the film contains that may be distressing to viewers. By continuing to watch your movie on the plane, you have essentially given consent to be shown all scenes of the film. What does it say about an airline when they show controversial original content if the viewer is advised of its suitability?

Do you think inflight entertainment censorship should change? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.