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Phones on planes to add to in-flight annoyances

Dec. 2, 2013 - 19:37 By Yu Kun-ha
Imagine Thanksgiving 2014: Travel is a breeze. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The glut of American oil has prompted an unprecedented decline in airfares.

As an experienced traveler, you’re tucked away happily in a window seat toward the front of the plane. Your bag fits neatly in the overhead bin. With the skill of a great actor, you have mastered the “don’t say a word to me” vibe. When your seatmate arrives, you look forward, or down at a book, or maybe even at your smartphone. (More on that in a moment.) When your seatmate leans in your direction, ready to open a conversation that could potentially last the entire flight, your body language proves to be a Maginot line that actually works. The person retreats.


Or maybe not. Your seatmate pulls out a phone and, once the plane reaches cruising altitude, engages in a series of Castro-length conversations that continue until you’re on the verge of landing. There is no escape ― just despair and a welling of violent thoughts.

Let’s now return to the present to offer some gratitude to the Federal Communications Commission for considering a loosening of the restrictions for mobile-phone use on airplanes. Thanks, guys! Now one of the modern world’s few phone-interruption-free zones has been overrun.

Reaction to the announcement has been, understandably, loud. But the bureaucrats did the right thing. The science says that cellular communications pose no risk to navigational equipment. The only reason to continue the ban would be for reasons of etiquette, and enforcing those rules is not a job for the federal government.

And look: Once phone use is permitted, it may be miserable for a bit. But isn’t it that way with all big technological shifts? We use new gadgets or new features like crazy, and for all the wrong reasons, and at all the wrong times, and then society tends to settle ― slowly, awkwardly, sometimes violently ― toward a set of socially acceptable and sensible rules, an etiquette equilibrium. (Exception here for texting and driving; and, come to think of it, texting and walking.)

Here’s another reason to be hopeful. Isn’t this what free markets are for? They see a need ― and work to meet that need. Maybe airplane designers, who seem to have done pretty much nothing to cabin interiors for the last several decades, will find better ways to separate seats or improve acoustics. Maybe all those airlines that have found ways to charge for food, entertainment, baggage, lounges and legroom will start offering noise-canceling headphones as well. And maybe ― check that, surely ― they will find a way to make customers pay for the privilege of dialing from above 10,000 feet.

In a world of intractable problems, give thanks that this isn’t one of them. Eventually, phones will be coming to planes. If you want to shape their future there, speak up. And enjoy your flight.

Editorial (Bloomberg)