Is inflight videochat in the US illegal? United Airlines thinks so

Boing Boing partner John Battelle was on a WiFi-enabled flight last night, and wanted to say bedtime-goodnight to his kids using videochat. Lots of parents tuck their kids into bed over video when they're far from home. What gentler, more loving example of the power of the internet could there be? Nope. A United Airlines flight attendant told John that this was prohibited because terrorists could use this to coordinate attacks.
201003101937.jpg 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.

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.

An FAA guidebook says inflight video chat is to be discouraged because it can be annoying to seatmates, but that's very different than banning something because it's a terrorist weapon.

Read: Video Chat on the plane illegal? (


  1. The logic that “it could be used by terrorists” is so open-ended that it’s useless. “I’m sorry sir, we can’t allow passengers to use the bathroom in-flight, because terrorists could use the secluded space to assemble their bombs.”

    People who come up with this logic aren’t really thinking very deeply about the situation.

    1. Hell, using that logic, we shouldn’t even let anyone on airplanes, period. Because, you know, they can be used as weapons by terrorists.

      1. > Hell, using that logic, we shouldn’t even let anyone on airplanes, period.

        Don’t let anybody from the TSA hear that or you’ll be road-tripping the next time you need to go to the other coast :-)

  2. This is the dumbest thing. Coordination of terrorist attacks? How is that different from using the wifi to email people? If they wanted to make an anti-terrorist argument, then they need to cut off ALL communication, and not make up some excuse about videochats.

  3. Someone suicidal and fanatic already planning on taking down the plane is going to wait for an okay from the ground?

  4. So IRC or Yahoo messenger or twitter or facebook can’t be used to coordinate anything? Or sending an email?

    Or google docs? Or any of the dozens of collaborative writing tools? Or having write access to a directory and planting text files or .html docs (for the well-formatted terrorist)?

    We could probably think of 500 more ways to communicate 2 way on the web without using video chat.

    I love it when stupid people get all technical.

      1. Ping Tunnel

        What is it?

        Ptunnel is an application that allows you to reliably tunnel TCP connections to a remote host using ICMP echo request and reply packets, commonly known as ping requests and replies. At first glance, this might seem like a rather useless thing to do, but it can actually come in handy in some cases. The following example illustrates the main motivation in creating ptunnel:

        Setting: You’re on the go, and stumble across an open wireless network. The network gives you an IP address, but won’t let you send TCP or UDP packets out to the rest of the internet, for instance to check your mail. What to do? By chance, you discover that the network will allow you to ping any computer on the rest of the internet. With ptunnel, you can utilize this feature to check your mail, or do other things that require TCP.

  5. By now everybody knows that anything a figure of authoritah doesn’t want you to do is because of terrorism. The sheeple are more likely to comply if they think they are being saved from having their asses blown up. They have never worried much about being annoying. Ironically, annoying people have probably caused more deaths than terrorism ;).

  6. Pro tip: calling people “sheeple” does not make you appear to be either a free thinker or a superior intellectual. It mostly makes you look like a conformist.

  7. So wait…a Video Chat/Skype is more annoying than the in-flight phones provided in the back of the seat headrests? If it is discouraged because of that reason…I don’t see why they should provide phones and calls at all?

    1. > So wait…a Video Chat/Skype is more annoying than the in-flight phones provided in the back of the seat headrests?

      Yes, because it’s far, far cheaper, so used longer and by more people.

  8. This policy is in force to plug the analog hole that’s allowed Al-Qaeda to make informed and timely purchases from SkyMall.

  9. Pretty much every site on the internet and who knows how many tens of thousands of applications that can be installed on computers provide a means for two-way communication.

    That’s the whole point of the internet… communication.

    If they don’t want people communicating then they shouldn’t have installed wi-fi access points on their planes.

  10. nobody needs to tuck their kids in while on an airplane. your kids will survive and the people sitting around you will have less of a desire to fire up some webcam porn site and start talking to the sluts. which is what i would do if you were sitting next to me tucking your kids into a laptop while i try to read or sleep…

    1. God forbid anyone do anything that isn’t strictly necessary, if it might slightly inconvenience some misanthrope such as yourself.

      Why should anyone be able to communicate with their loved ones while you’re so bitter and alone? It’s just not fair.

  11. I was taking a photo midflight once aboard a BA flight and was told to turn the camera of and that I could get arrested for using it on a flight.

  12. So… speak out loud video chat is illegal, but the seat to seat instant messaging service embedded in every seat back isn’t?

    Mind you, I was flying on an Emirates Airbus, so they probably /want/ to assist the terrorists, right?

    (oh how I wish there was a sarcasm font…)

  13. So do the terrorists use sign language to plan attacks now? Or do they just hold up signs to the camera? Wouldn’t nearly every single form of two way communication other than a webcam be more effective for coordination? I mean if everyone around you can see and hear you planning something that more or less ruins your plan, right?

  14. The real reason is certainly that the bandwidth on the plane is severely limited, and if more than two people fire up video chats then there is nothing left for the remaining passengers.

    But instead of having to explain things or implement technical solutions like traffic shaping, we can now just play the terrorist card. Mission accomplished!

  15. When I was a boy the terrorists would plan their operations ahead of time and synchronize watches. They didn’t need no dang video chat.

  16. I want to see the terrorists who sit on video chat on a plane, talking about blowing up the plane. What possible language covers that?

    “Soooo….you ready to blow up the…dog?”
    “Ummmmmm yeahhh….the…dog…is gonna be fucked the hell up in like 20 minutes.”
    “Sweet. Have an awesome afterlife, dude!”

  17. I’d have thought that bandwidth would be the main reason for airlines stopping video calls. The Wifi services I’ve used on trains before have disabled or not allowed video streaming and the like because there just isn’t enough to go round

  18. Dang. I was SO looking forward to trying ChatRoulette on my next overseas flight, just to see the reaction from the person sitting next to me…

  19. They ban it because it clogs up the WiFi and therefore use the “terrorism” excuse because most people will act like sheep and comply with anything in the name of preventing terrorism. United should be ashamed of itself to resorting to such tactics.

  20. Don’t you just hate being stuck on a plane, sat next to one of those loud terrorists on the phone…


    1. True. But it’s also a great op for teens.

      Dad: Hey, Jack. Get all your homework done?
      Jack: Geez, Dad.
      Dad: Don’t say Geez to me, Jack.
      Jack: Hey, Dad. I need the car Friday night.
      Dad: We’ll see. You think you deserve –
      Dad: Jack, what are –
      Dad: All right. You got the car.
      Jack: Sweet. I’ll tell Mom you’ll be late.

  21. I always wondered what would happen if the two most prevalanet authoritarian memes –“Think of the children!” and “…But then the terrorists will win!”– ever came into conflict with each other.

    Thanks to United now I know the answer!

  22. I love it that the airlines care so deeply about my annoyance threshold . Maybe they could upgrade my seat while they’re at it? Or give that one stinky dude his own row.

  23. Frankly I have a tough time caring why the airline said no, because I’m so happy they did. The only thing more annoying than being packed into a plane would be to be packed into a plane listening to all the “important conversations” going on. Sheer hell.

    1. The only thing more annoying than being packed into a plane would be to be packed into a plane listening to all the “important conversations” going on.

      Does that include you yammering at your traveling companion?

      1. That’s a bit specious. There is naturally a limit to how many people will know their seat mates on a flight which generally caps that to a dull roar. On the other hand, a far higher number of people have someone somewhere they could gab with. This raises the problem from dull roar to serious pain in the butt. Everyone who flies knows the cacophony that breaks out when the plane hits the tarmac and people fire up phones, and it is far louder than the average level along the rest of the flight. And I’m guessing anyone who flies with any regularity would rather not hear tarmac level ambient “conversation” levels for the entire flight.

  24. I think United Airlines has hit on a wonderful idea. We should really consider banning all two-way communications to prevent all types of violence. Imagine how much safer we would be and the millions of lives saved. Two-way communications is at the root of all violence.

  25. In a word. Stupid.

    If they are afraid of that, then they should not offer WiFi. Period.

    Blocking the likely suspects, ie. commercial programs is retarded. That’s like telling two people standing next to each other they aren’t allowed to talk to one another. Sure it makes it a bit more difficult, but in the end, between body or sign language, or someone picking up a pen and paper and communicating that way, you didn’t really solve much except piss of those people who wish to have a conversation casually.

    I could go update my website. I could go and post in a forum. I could make up my own chat software. I could use old chat software likely no one is looking for. I could go to a java enabled site that features chat, I could email, etc… there are so many ways to do this, banning the commercial chat is doing nothing except pissing of normal users. If your a “Terrorist” and you simply MUST communicate on plane, having enabled WiFi will certainly allow for that.

    Anyway the absurdity of it all baffles me. Someone had to come up with the idea of WiFi on plane, and install the thing, did no one explain the details to MGNT?

    Of course Video would be more difficult to do, and might require at least some know how, but then to what end? What could you possibly need video for (other than to rant on the internet before the end)..

  26. Well, they don’t block ichat because we all know that the TERRORISTS use PCs and not Macs.

  27. Ya know.. try and catch some light sleep on a modern plane these days.. impossible. The cabin lights up with those damn LCD’s in the backs of the seats, and of course the system automatically resets the channels, so at some point, it’s this mass flickering of panels, like some spaz kid playing with the light switches. If you can’t use the damn things, then turn them off (or adjust the brightness, which also resets)..

    Was looking in a Best Buy flyer today , and there was page after page of nifty gadgets that I imagine would be useful for the traveler, if only they were allowed to use them. Frustrating being Mr.Electronic and next to you is a guy enjoying his paperback. Damn Kindle !

    I’m also sick of these outdated signal lights in the planes. No Smoking ? Duhhh. only since forever. How about something that tells me when I can turn my iPod on? Seatbelt sign ain’t good enough. Maybe I want to listen to some death metal when we hit a patch of bad air.

    2 weeks ago stuck at O’Hare for 3 hours at the gate, was told no phones, no iPods.. just sit there stare at the backs of people’s heads.

    I used to enjoy flying for fun, but as a recent commuter, god sometimes I wanna blow my brains out.

    1. “2 weeks ago stuck at O’Hare for 3 hours at the gate, was told no phones, no iPods.. just sit there stare at the backs of people’s heads.”

      Now you know why some of us still travel with those arcane paper versions of books.

  28. This airline “discourages” vid-chat as annoying to seatmates but allows people to recline in coach?


  29. I would think the real reason is the lucrative contracts with inflight phone companies. We can’t let customers use free and open tools to communicate in realtime when we can charge them $1.99 for a voice call!

  30. Damn you clever Americans! Your accursed iChat policy has defeated Al Queda forever! We surrender.

    brb sploding

  31. Osama, from his cave, or rather a luxury mansion in the middle of the Saudi Desert, is doubtless laughing his head off at net stories like this.

    He had, what…?
    A 75% successful attack that really should have been no worse than going up to an eagle and plucking out one feather. An attack that could have been far worse (1) in many ways.

    But, the panicked reactions did far more damage than any number of attacks he could have mustered did. He’s probably not behind any new actions, like the “Fruit of the Boom!” guy, and it’d be embarrassing if he was. But every little jitter, even a crank phone call shuts down a nearly bankrupt airline. It’s pathetic.

    1. I of course don’t want to post something, just in case there’s an actual attack. However, this is the most obvious and if it’s done, it’s the fault of the big companies.

    Remember that 2003 blackout? One transformer blew and it killed most of the northern USA and southern Canada by the chain reaction it caused.

    This was the fault of all the “Privatization”. The CEO’s lied, cut staff, raised rates, participated in “Enron” type manipulation… And, they did little things like “Stretching” the transformer’s lifespans. It used to be, a transformer got replaced when the manual said it was time to replace it. Now, they wait for them to burn out, giving themselves more money at the cost of frequent local blackouts. They also don’t invest in new infrastructure, after all they need to get a new Yacht every year… So that transformer blowing both was preventable and caused a “Domino” effect.

    If on 9/11 there were 3 attacks, the WTC complex and the Pentagon -but- the 4th team had had nothing to do with the airplanes/schools. They just worked as legal immigrant scabs in public service jobs and when the time came, they went around cutting wires and shooting transformers… So that when America was still panicked thanks to our vile media, and darkness fell, the lights went out…? And later, those that avoided capture became “Malvo” type sniper/bombers…

    Frankly, the reason it didn’t happen argues the “9/11 conspiracy” a bit, no?

    1. Let’s not forget that the one plane that DIDN’T hit its intended target that day was stopped because the passengers on board used their cell phones in direct violation of FAA policy.

      1. That, btw, is why all those “Magic Shoe” and “Fruit of the Boom!” attempt failed so miserably.

        There was a neat joke in a “MAD Magazine” from the mid 90s that sussed it up right…

        On an airplane: A crazy man with a molotov cocktail jumps up and screams “Hokay! We now all go to CUBA!!!”

        The passengers behave like the expected sheep they are. They are just going to sit back and get a free “Vacation to Cuba” that won’t get them on any “CIA watch lists”. They imagine dining with Castro, buying suitcases full of Havana cigars, romancing Cuban ladies, and the nutcase crying miserably in a bleak dungeon…

        Well, that bubble is popped by the stewardess. She says “Attention passengers. I just called the airline and you are each going to be charged $918.24 for the extra flight to Cuba. Also, you will have to pay at least as much to leave Cuba, note that there will not be a second flight out…”

        The whole crowd leaps on the guy in a sudden wave. They open the flight’s emergency escape door and toss him and his bomb out in mid flight.


        Likewise, 9/11 changed an old rule where people in a hijacking were supposed to be sheep, because the real cops would take care of it and they might get sued by the hijacker if they beat the sh-t out of him. And if they went to “Cuba” they’d have a fun, free vacation as long as they totally agreed with Castro that he had nothing to do with the lunatic, and really few would say so. But, with 9/11 all this “Security” is worthless. Any attack on a plane will become a attack #4 at best, since the passengers will assume they are in danger. More likely, as has happened in RL, is that they tackle the guy and that’s that.

  32. They have obviously never heard of VPN. One could use videochat, even if it is blocked. VPN cannot be analysed, monitored, cracked, or sniffed

  33. I think United Airlines should allow video chat provided the passenger is not speaking to the person on the other end. My reason is based on personal comfort and not “security.”

    I hope to live to see the day that airlines run quickly.

  34. I wish someone would remember that cellphones and knives were what informed and allowed the Pennsylvania 9-11 people fight for control of their hijacked aircraft, ultimately saving the White House and instead crashing it in a farm field.

    Maybe, since it has worked before in an almost good enough fashion, fighting back and beating the hijackers, the law should require passengers to carry serious satellite communications gear and a silenced MP-5 machine gun in order to be allowed to board, you know because of the terrorists, because that wouldn’t be over reacting.

    1. Not to be pedantic or anything, and I’m far from a gun-nut… but the MP5 would be classified as a sub-machinegun, I believe due to the smaller ammo size, if not the mechanisms involved in firing it.

      Also, Anon @#51- Just because you can’t crack it, sniff it, etc NOW, doesn’t mean it will be secure forever. Never say never. Likewise, it’s foolish to assume that any security system is 100% secure, and so it’s good practice to behave accordingly.

  35. And if you don’t comply, United will break your guitar.

    Oh, what am I talking about? They’ll break your guitar anyway–no extra charge.


  36. He was flying on United Airlines. Thats all the information you need to know the service level and staff competence you will encounter on the flight.

  37. I am truly amazed people still fly anywhere for business reasons. Video conferencing made business travel obsolete decades ago! The only business activities which still require face-up contact are probably illegal, anyway. Of course, stranger sex is harder to score if you stay at the home office . . . I’m just sayin’

  38. To those wanting to sleep on flights and who find themselves distracted by the hubbub of other peoples noisy and bright lives why not try some earplugs and an eyemask?


Comments are closed.