Sanctuary in the Skies


The sky is falling. Or so it would seem, listening to the wails of outrage from frequent travelers for whom peace and tranquility can only be had at 650 miles an hour and 35,000 feet.

I first encountered this issue when talking to a good friend who flies for a living. He probably takes–conservatively–50 round-trips a year. He’s also a technophile from way back, usually beating me by a couple of years owning the latest, coolest electronic gadget. His computers have always been better than mine, and he beat me to installing a house server by several years. So I was shocked one day when our conversation drifted to the subject of wireless service on airplanes. For all his techno-enthusiasm (he also teaches computer courses), he was dead set against the idea.

I pointed out to him that the typical objection to cell phones on planes had to be bogus and explained why: Airline safety is something of utmost concern to federal authorities. Any risk whatsoever is subject to rule-making. And there’s no margin for error. So I said to him, how is it that cell phones are so dangerous they have to be switched off for takeoff–yet there’s several hundred of them on any given plane–some buried in carry-on luggage? There’s no way the crew can check all of them, which means that every flight has at least several cell phones which are on, and actively polling the nearest cell tower. I know this because I’ve left my phone powered up on many flights with no adverse effects.

So, I reasoned, the only purpose for the ban was so the airlines could get away with charging several dollars a minute for those annoying air phones. I said to my friend, “the ban is stupid, they should just put a cell-site on the airplane with a satellite transceiver–end of story.”

No, no, he said, nobody wants that. Surveys show consistently that people don’t want cell phones on airplanes. Was he serious?? Hmm, I said, shouldn’t everyone just make up their own mind? If you don’t want to use your phone, keep it switched off. No, no, he said, getting increasingly agitated. “The airlines will lose business. All the executive frequent fliers would revolt and switch to other airlines.”

I saw that I had touched a nerve. What do I know? I don’t spend a hundred days a year flying.

But, I said, as long as people don’t talk any louder on the phone than they would talk to the person sitting next to them, what’s the difference? I mean, couldn’t flight attendants police rude talkers? It’s like any other situation which requires manners. You have to keep it under wraps on a flight. Personally, I spend most of each flight scrunched up into very unnatural sitting positions to avoid being rude to the person next to me. At six foot one, I don’t exactly fit comfortably into economy class. And I have to keep my elbows touching my body, or I will crowd the armrests. Phone etiquette is no less important, and has been worked out in every other situation besides air travel. It’s insulting to assume that people would automatically be rude. It’s guilty until proven innocent.

What’s the big deal? The objectors are not being honest. It has nothing to do with safety or etiquette, but rather a desire by frequent fliers to privately control a form of public transport. Apparently I was the last to get the memo, but flying is sacred.

Now, some airlines are beginning to offer wi-fi, (no cell service yet) and the old edifice of “air sanctuary” is crumbling.

Here’s how Eric Weiner described it on NPR:

But, I hear the technothusiats say, just don’t log on. No one’s forcing you. You can always opt out. If only. Every technology, from the car to the cell phone, starts out as optional and soon becomes mandatory. We can’t opt out, lest we be labeled an out-of-touch Luddite or, worse, old.

But, the technothusiats coo, onboard Internet access will be so convenient. Those who can log on at 35,000 feet will enjoy a “competitive advantage.” Perhaps, but the first person to send a package Federal Express also enjoyed a competitive advantage — for about two seconds. Once everyone can send a package overnight, the advantage disappears, and all that remains is the expectation.

So, please, airline executives, I beg of you: Don’t do it. You’ve already deprived me of leg room, decent food and dignity. Don’t take away my peace of mind, too.

Waa, waa, WAAAAAAAAAAAA. Air travel is so horrible. That is, unless a select group of privileged frequent fliers get to set the rules. They can put up with screaming babies, chatty seat-mates, and the TSA, but cell phones and wi-fi put them over the edge.

Why? It’s not about sanctuary or inner peace at all. You get that by hiking to the top of a mountain alone–not being blasted into the stratosphere in a hunk of aluminum with hundreds of people. Here’s the dirty secret: Business travelers resist allowing access because someone might expect them to be on call. They want to control everyone else’s behavior so they don’t have to control their own.

Business travelers, let me get this straight: your company can pay to fly you across the country or the ocean on company time, and can’t expect you to answer your email? Sounds to me like someone’s been getting a free ride. See, there’s a boundary between work and play, and when your company’s paying for your ticket to a business destination, you’re on the clock!

Seeing as most of the frequent fliers are solidly in the top quintile of earners, they have even less reason to complain. Other people are digging ditches or picking up trash while the reclining airborne business travelers fret about the possibility that they might get an email.

I’m not buying it. It’s all about the deal they make. They have to draw their own boundaries. First, I really don’t think most organizations are that unreasonable. Switch off, or if that’s not possible, they can tell their associates: “I’ll be on a plane, don’t email me unless it’s an emergency.” Who knows? If an email does come in, that “emergency” might solve an urgent problem, save a life, or result in new business which–in this economy–might just save their job.

It’s time to stop the whining. Their desire not to be on call doesn’t give them the right to force everyone else to maintain radio silence.

Airplanes are public spaces. As long as we’re polite (no porn or loud music, obviously) the rest of us have a right to catch up on email, watch an online video clip, write a blog post, goof off, or just do whatever it is we all do on the interwebs.

Comments (9 comments)

Michael / February 12th, 2009, 10:01 am / #1

"But, I said, as long as people don’t talk any louder on the phone than they would talk to the person sitting next to them, what’s the difference? … Phone etiquette is no less important, and has been worked out in every other situation besides air travel. It’s insulting to assume that people would automatically be rude. It’s guilty until proven innocent."

You're joking right? Phone etiquette has been worked out? What planet are you living on, 'cause it sure isn't earth! People can't even talk at a reasonable volume in a quiet cafe, let alone in the deafening rumble of a jumbo jet.

Its not insulting assume people will be rude – they are all the time.

BlackSun / February 12th, 2009, 9:05 pm / #2

So if someone's rude, deal with them directly. Don't punish the innocent. I said we have worked out the etiquette: 1) Talk in a normal voice, 2) Go outside if you want to have a lengthy or private conversation. That doesn't mean everyone follows it. Such is life. There are so many areas in which people flirt with the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

We all know how to drive politely, yet the fact that people still cut each other off and engage in road rage doesn't mean we throw up our hands and ban driving.

We don't have a "right not to be annoyed." That would require all sorts of draconian rules that would please no one. If we want our freedoms, we have to put up with other people's exercise of theirs. That's the issue of cell phones on planes. (Which, by the way, no one is offering yet–unless you're willing to pay the outrageous rates on an Airphone.) The article is about Wi-Fi access, which has no "rudeness factor" at all.

Anyhow, if you wanted to ban all rude behavior, you'd be living in a prison. Talk about a nanny state…

ClintJCL / February 12th, 2009, 5:14 pm / #3

Did you ever try using your cellphone from the plane?

BlackSun / February 12th, 2009, 7:32 pm / #4

Closest thing was on the runway. Basically when you're in the air, you're too far away vertically from ground towers and usually out of coverage areas anyway. They would need to put a cell site on the plane (or just tap into whatever they use to drive the Airphones).

darkeros / February 13th, 2009, 4:31 pm / #5

I am all for the internet connection. But we all sit too close together on planes to talk on cellphones. People do talk too loud, there is no outside to go to, and a most people want to sleep, read, or write. So I am against the cellphone deal, for now. We just all sit waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay to close to each other. And yes, some conversations go on, but mostly those are few. And one baby may cry, unfortunate for those around. But add that most everyone would be on the phone, it would be sheer cacophony! If coach had the space of 1st class, perhaps it could work. But most people for whatever reason speak louder on cellphones than they do in normal conversation. And who wants to be telling people to be quiet? Then you have the added irritation in the mix.

So as far as internet access goes… absolutely. But they are going to have to create some booths or some other head container before talking on cellphones will amiably work with the environment.

Amaterasu / February 13th, 2009, 7:06 pm / #6

Yes, it is true people seem to talk at a volume suited more to a device such as two coke cans
connected by a tight piece of string, than cell phones.
I can't see what is so invasive about internet on board. If one cannot defend one's own boundary
enough to say that you won't be answering email on board, then maybe the person should be taking a
course in being more self-assertive. Can't really help the guy who is afraid of being called an old
Luddite; time heals these verbal wounds my friend. Grow some Rhinoceros skin.
Internet during flight would be a great to aid to help keep kids quiet, and a time saver for those who can make last minute plans and inquiries in transit.
It's a case of the "customer is always right"; I think the pro-Internet side will win in the long run.
Now, onto how we are intend to fuel planes in the long term, and what the
flying machines of the future will look like…..

BlackSun / February 13th, 2009, 8:18 pm / #7

Amaterasu, you are right, this is a trival discussion compared to the oil/water/climate change issue. It's a much bigger question whether commercial air travel remains viable at all when oil demand rebounds, which it will inevitably. Airlines start dropping like flies when oil exceeds $100/barrel. Given the world's resource constraints, we've only got maybe a decade left to develop a steady supply of renewable jet fuel, or this issue will be completely academic.

BlackSun / February 13th, 2009, 8:13 pm / #8

Maybe the solution is price rationing. But that's already the case with the Airphones. Because they're expensive, people don't generally use them. Having some kind of phone access is necessary. They made a huge difference on 9/11. And it's good to be able to call someone about a flight delay. One thing to remember is that with engine noise as loud as it is you don't really hear conversations except from the people right next to you. Obviously if people shouted into their phones it would be a problem.

I guess what bothers me most is the lack of honesty in the discussion. Don't claim objections to cell phones in the air are about safety or technology. Admit it's about the human factor. Then solutions can be worked out.

BlackSun / February 21st, 2009, 2:33 pm / #9

Looks like RyanAir is already testing in-flight cell service in addition to Wi-Fi. This may be a moot issue in a year or two.

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