United Airlines has been caught in a political crossfire over a politically conservative news station that was the default channel on flights that offer DirecTV service.
The Chicago-based airline said it had not chosen the default channel but that it would in the future, with the default changing in early February.
Newsmax TV, a news station that started last year with a reputation for a conservative slant, has been the default channel since Sept. 1, playing on seat-back monitors on some 225 United aircraft that offer live television service.
The issue blew up on social media this week after Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for President Obama, took to Twitter on Monday: “Hey there, @united. Why on earth is newsmax tv the default channel running on all of your screens when boarding your planes.”
United Tweeted back: “In the coming months we will be removing that as our default channel.”
While others also took offense at the channel default, some with conservative leanings urged United not to succumb to pressure and to retain Newsmax.
One self-described conservative website, Patriot Mash, described the two-Tweet exchange in a headline as, “Former senior Obama aide throws tantrum after noticing Newsmax TV on United Airlines flight, airline caves.”
United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said the carrier has not received an overwhelming number of complaints from customers but has received comments from both sides in the past few days.
United knew what the default was and could have objected, but it didn’t, Johnson said.
Live TV, the company offering access to DirecTV channels, struck a deal with Newsmax to make it the default channel through January. United has no agreement with Newsmax and received no direct revenue from Live TV’s agreement with Newsmax, Johnson said.
United in February will begin selecting the default channel, probably a business-news channel, Johnson said.
United taking control over default channels was already planned and not a result of the flap over Newsmax, he said.
“The default channel on our in-flight live television service changes periodically based on marketing agreements between the Live TV service provider, television programmers and United,” Johnson said. “The next change to the default channel is scheduled for early February – a change that has been planned for several weeks.”
Johnson said he didn’t know whether Newsmax TV might one day again be the default channel on United flights. He said the carrier’s goal is not to support a political philosophy but to sell optional in-flight TV service.