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Cell hell: Mobile phones on planes

Washington, Feb 26 | Jim Billimoria, Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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American legislators are again discussing the ban on mobile-phone calls on the country's planes. This time the issue is not one of risk, but of consideration.  

Gulliver does not intend to go over the safety aspects of using cell phones in a cabin again here; we have covered that topic many times. Suffice to say there has clearly been a certain amount of obfuscation about the supposed dangers, and this has rankled many passengers. But the upshot of being misled is that people tend to frame the discussion around whether they have a right to use their phones. It is pitched as an argument of common sense and even morality; of the little guy taking on the illogical bureaucrats. But Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' transport and infrastructure committee, who is sponsoring the bill to ban phones, is taking a more sensible angle. “Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded and confined,” he is quoted as saying in Avionics Today. “In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cell-phone call to be too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away. But at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go."

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AMERICAN legislators are again discussing the ban on mobile-phone calls on the country's planes. This time the issue is not one of risk, but of consideration.  

Gulliver does not intend to go over the safety aspects of using cell phones in a cabin again here; we have covered that topic many times. Suffice to say there has clearly been a certain amount of obfuscation about the supposed dangers, and this has rankled many passengers. But the upshot of being misled is that people tend to frame the discussion around whether they have a right to use their phones. It is pitched as an argument of common sense and even morality; of the little guy taking on the illogical bureaucrats. But Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' transport and infrastructure committee, who is sponsoring the bill to ban phones, is taking a more sensible angle. “Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded and confined,” he is quoted as saying in Avionics Today. “In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cell-phone call to be too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away. But at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go."   

The thought of being strapped into a tiny seat next to someone yakking on his mobile for hours on end is an appalling one. For a simple reason: in Gulliver’s experience, people do not know how to use their phones responsibly. Those who, one minute, are having a perfectly civil conversation with their neighbour on a train or in a restaurant, will raise their voice by many decibels when they make a phone call. Some blame the lack of sidetone unlike a conventional landline, we do not hear our own voice coming back through the earpiece and so over-compensate by talking too loudly. But Gulliver is not convinced. I work on the theory that “cell-yell” is mostly brought about by people’s over-inflated sense of their own importance. Why else do people insist that the rest of the carriage listen to the mundane details of their everyday lives?

As my colleague recently pointed out, we can now fiddle about on social networks on some planes. He saw this as a positive thing. But this Gulliver yearns for a bit of shelter from the tyranny of constant communication. I once interviewed the CEO of a big headhunting firm. He told me that businessmen would rue the day that BlackBerrys began working on planes. Thirty-thousand feet up is about the only place left on earth for blue-sky thinking, he explained. He said that he did most of his strategic contemplation in the air because he could be sure he would not be interrupted by the day-to-day distractions of work.

Perhaps, you may say, there could be special mobile zones on planes? Or some dead time, when their use was prohibited (on overnight flights, say). Sadly, experience suggests these would be pointless. On British trains, for example, there are usually “quiet zones”—coaches in which phone calls are banned. Well, that is the theory; such carriages usually have at least one person bellowing away inanely. (And they seem pretty indignant when this is pointed out to them.) It may not be in line with this newspaper’s thinking on most matters, but when it comes to mobiles on planes, your correspondent prays for a bit of state interference.

 



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