Historians have discovered that Dante actually envisioned a 10th circle of hell, with sinners condemned to spend their eternities traveling from one destination to the next on any one of America's insufferable airlines. It appears that the people running this industry have found a way to make every single aspect of this form of travel an experience in misery.
The latest casualty is to be found in the in-flight movies. Most offerings these days are monumental cinematic embarrassments, movies that would never rise to the level of the $1 stack at Blockbuster, and probably cost the airlines even less. So most passengers take a pass these days when those $5 headphones are offered, finding it more entertaining to stare at the back of the seats in front of them.
I can lose myself easily in work or a book while these movies are playing, but a strange thing happened a couple of weeks ago during one of these flights. After hearing the ping of a couple of attendant call buttons, I looked up and saw that all the screens had gone blank. A few minutes later, the stewardess came on the intercom to announce that because of numerous complaints from passengers with families about the graphic violence being shown in this particular film, it had been stopped.
Chalk up a new outrage. The airlines are now airing graphically violent and sexualized R-rated movies, and it matters not a bit to them that children cannot help but sit there and watch, headphones or not. Delta started showing R-rated films in December, while United and US Airways have increased the frequency with which they show such films. Last month, the three airlines all featured "Fracture," in which Anthony Hopkins shoots his wife in the face, then drags her body away from the pool of blood.
The New York Times published a report on the trend, focusing on Thomas Fine and Sara Susskind of Cambridge, Mass., who were forced to spend two hours on a United Airlines flight desperately trying to distract their 6-year-old son from screens displaying the R-rated "Shooter," which depicts multiple gory killings.
"It's not like he can look away when he hears the sound (of gunshots coming through nearby headphones), and he's sitting on a plane bored, and he's 6," Fine said. The Times also featured a mother whose 7-year-old daughter has nightmares after watching a graphic preview for the latest "King Kong" movie on a US Airways flight.
But even more shocking than that frustrating situation is how callous some airline executives sound in response to protests. "Parents have to be responsible for the actions of their kids -- whether they shouldn't look at the screen or look away," said Eric Kleiman, director of product marketing for Continental Airlines. If you think that was a dodge, try this: "People love Pepsi, and we don't serve that, so there you go, we just ruined their flight. That's an accurate analogy."
That's a ridiculous analogy. Next we will be told that a half-ounce stale pretzel bag constitutes a meal. Such is the arrogance of those who care not a wit about their passengers.
Crumbling Hollywood standards in television and movies are spreading their imposing effects across the culture. The airlines defend their increasing embrace of R-rated films by saying this is the direction that entertainment is headed, so therefore they're only following where the market is going. Airlines are also moving into showing sleazy television shows, like ABC's "Desperate Housewives," so young children can also now witness suburban adultery and seduction at 30,000 feet.
What in the world is wrong with these airlines? For decades, they entertained their passengers with quality films. Every once in a blue moon, they still do, and passengers are treated to a movie they otherwise might never know existed. A couple of years ago, I caught "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean," a fascinating work of creative genius. A few months ago it was "Copying Beethoven," with an extraordinary performance by Ed Harris in the lead role.
When quality films contained adult matter, the airlines simply edited it out, respecting that impressionable children -- and discerning adults, too -- were on board. Have you ever heard a passenger exclaim after a flight that he would have enjoyed the film more had there been graphic violence or gratuitous obscenities?
The situation has become so obnoxious that North Carolina parent Jesse Kalisher has started a Website called KidSafeFilms.org to lobby the airlines to stop this visual abuse of children. Good for him. Even better: Next time you're on one of those insufferable flights, and one of these shows comes on, do as the passengers did on my flight a couple of weeks ago. Raise hell.