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When Flying the Skies, Best to Avert One’s Eyes -- Especially in Coach Class

What's the etiquette for your personal movie choice on a long flight when the nearest set of eyes is just a shoulder-width away from your screen?

Do sardines in a can have an expectation of privacy? Moreover, do they try to imagine they’re the only sardine in the can? These are the questions I pondered repeatedly on a three and a half hour flight this last weekend whilst shoehorned in a middle seat, coach class.

Positioned in an awkward, contorted physical arrangement that would make Mr. Fantastic cramp up, I cracked open my laptop – with the screen positioned at the maximum 45 degrees possible in the tight space – and began catching up with Breaking Bad. Over the course of 58-minutes, there were two very active, but under the covers, “motion of the ocean” sexual activities and enough shots of actor Bryan Cranston’s butt to last me several miserable lifetimes. However, I just didn’t care who else in close proximity or in passing by had to see his butt, too.

Nothing in the Breaking Bad episode went beyond a PG-13 rating and my seatmates were both adults. Still, for a moment I felt a little embarrassed, and had I any space to twist the screen away from their view, I may have. Of course, when one is in the middle seat, that's impossible.

The middle seat on a long flight is like experiencing purgatory and bordering on time in Hell. The most diminutive person becomes a seeming behemoth in the middle seat, and comfort for said middle person is, no matter one's size, simply impossible. Even with quiet, affable seatmates flanking each side, every movement is a challenge and elbows -- inadvertently or not -- are thrown.

The middle seat is many things to many people. It's a boon to the chiropractic industry, given how one has to contort oneself and remain contorted for long stretches of time. When you finally pull out of that, you're gonna need some professional help. It’s an extreme exercise in forced optimism since, although sitting there makes you hate life, ideally it also motivates you to consider the bright side -- the plane, with your body crammed inside, remains airborn. What the middle seat is not is private. As much as passengers try to respect one another's personal space on an airplane, such as it is, the flying sardine can with recycled airflow offers no expectation of privacy: everyone knows when you itch and where.

When flying, entertaining oneself and distracting the mind is a survival tactic of endurance, so how much should surrounding passengers affect our onboard pop culture consumption? I say not much.

Aside from the fact that when you’re traveling and watching a movie, you may not know what to expect (until someone launches a Flying Friendly Flicks Web site that details which movies are airplane safe – or when to fast forward while on the plane).

I still keenly remember watching The Cooler on another flight that when Maria Bello got unexpectedly naked -- followed up by William H. Macy in an interminable full-frontal shot. I scrambled like a caught teenager watching late night Cinemax (or even the old USA Network “Up All Night”). I doubt the little blue-haired lady sitting next to me would have even noticed what I was watching – or cared so much – so long as I didn’t try to yack her ear off or take up more than my allowable amount of the armrest space we shared.

Nearly anything that occupies passengers and makes a flight go by faster is fair game. Well, nearly. Certainly, there are limits. It always amuses me that newsstands in terminals sell hardcore nudie mags since I’m fairly certain only the most pathological pervert would be browsing the material on a plane. That is kinda creepy for passengers and stewards alike. Additionally, watching something along the lines of Saw (or even Sex and the City 2) is simply too crass for on-plane viewing.

However, I think the allowable limits of what can be watched on one's personal device rendered not so personal in such circumstances should be broad -- especially if it means traveling on a quiet flight where everyone in their tiny little seats slips into their own personal worlds.

Successful traveling really requires a high functioning ability to tune out the rest of the world. Winking other humans out of existence makes the process somewhat smoother when at security checkpoints or in baggage claim madness.

Once on the plane, when cramped into confined spaces small enough to draw the attention of the ASPCA, if we were only so lucky to be thus monitored, slipping into a solitary mental headspace where no other people exist is essential to getting through the flight.

So next time the guy sitting next to you -- quite close to you, in fact -- fires up a video that happens to feature the saggy white posterior of an incredibly gifted actor, just avert your eyes to your own personal screen and pretend you’re the only sardine in the can.

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