Rhodri Marsden: Relaxing rules for air passengers enables annoying behaviour
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 19 December 2013
The plane was taxiing down the runway in preparation for takeoff at Heathrow. I was sitting two rows away from a chap who had been chatting on his mobile for 10 minutes, oblivious to instructions over the intercom and the loud tutting going on around him.
Nervous flyers like myself were particularly troubled by his refusal to shut up, but eventually, as the murmurs grew in volume and the plane turned to commence acceleration, a man much scarier than myself finally shouted at him: "Turn that bloody thing off NOW."
Surprised and slightly indignant, he hung up and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Because we had a fundamental belief that if he hadn't done so, the plane might have slammed hard into a housing estate in Hounslow.
Twenty or more years ago, the signal emanating from a brick-sized mobile phone presented a very small threat to the avionics of the day. Rules governing usage were put in place, but they didn't take technological development into account.
Today, the threat from consumer electronics is effectively nil; one study found that you'd have to put well over six million active Kindles into an aeroplane to interfere even slightly with its operation.
The chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was right, therefore, when he said recently that the rules were "outdated and restrictive", and it's unsurprising that the commissioners voted to repeal a ban on voice calls.
But they must have been shocked by the furious response from cabin crews and passengers alike, who have demanded it be retained.
The United States Department of Transport is now considering implementing its own ban – but this has nothing to do with safety.
It's simply because mobile phones are bloody annoying. Regular fliers have expressed deep concern that peaceful journeys will soon be compromised by someone in the next seat yammering away on a conference call. It may not present a threat to the plane's operation, but it threatens our own sanity.
We may well have surrendered ourselves to the almost total ubiquity of mobile phones, but we'd like aeroplanes to remain sacred. Sure, give us data; yesterday's announcement that BA are now allowing handheld devices to be used during taxiing, take-off and landing is fantastic – but please, no calls.
Hardly anyone wants them. Even the old, expensive Airfones that the majority of the 9/11 calls were made on were phased out more than five years ago due to lack of use. Please don't let a handful of loquacious bastards ruin our flight. We beg you (they said).
Under the FCC's recommendations, US airlines would retain full control over the nature of the connectivity they offered passengers; Delta has already said that voice calls won't be happening on its planes.
Of course, in Europe the ban was overturned a while ago, and if you've flown out of Gatwick on a Virgin A330 you may have made a call on the Aeromobile service that's available on half its fleet. Thus far, it's caused no problems; no cases of air rage over incessant chatter have yet been reported.
But if this becomes the norm across the globe, it's surely only a matter of time. Humans have the capacity to be incredibly annoying; why enable exasperating behaviour by providing us with a service that we don't particularly need?
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