Noise at 30,000 feet

After the long delays, the ridiculous security checks and the frayed nerves, the appeal of air travel is to suffer yet another blow: noise pollution. Following in the footsteps of libraries, cinemas and trains, it is now the turn of airplanes to surrender to the urges of mobile phone junkies. The European Commission recently gave the green light for in-flight calling, surrendering one of the last oases of tranquillity. The future of air travel looks like it is going to be a nightmare: The lulling throb of the jet engines as the airplane heads into the clouds is rudely interrupted by some irritating ring tone. «Yes, I’m on the plane. The PLANE!» The besuited guy in Aisle 5 is buying and selling stocks, while making abundantly sure to advertise his rare marketing skills at the top of his lungs, while the woman at the back loudly informs us, in every sordid, useless detail of her latest purchases on Oxford Street. Hell at 30,000 feet. Specialists warn of the possibility of air rage, of enraged passengers wanting to choke the life out of their loose-tongued cabinmates. According to a recent survey, some 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement «I don’t want people talking on their phones during flights.» Airline companies, however, seem totally unfazed by the warnings. Full speed ahead to profit… For many, a trip on an airplane offers a welcome break from the indiscreet assault of devices that require our full and undivided attention. This state of enforced serenity will be sorely missed. After takeoff, mobile phones, laptop computers and BlackBerries are switched off, silenced, without having to make excuses. No regrets for being out of reach. Total communications limbo. Air travel is, in a way, also a journey into the past, as the suffocating obligation of modern life to be constantly available is relegated to the luggage hold. The way our lives have become, we feel an incomprehensible urge to incessantly check for e-mail and phone messages. We toil under the stress of returning that missed phone call, returning a cyber-invitation on Facebook. Otherwise, we fear that we are telling that person at the other end that he is not important enough to take up a few moments of our time. The most positive aspect of the lifting of the mobile ban on airplanes is the sky-high cost of the service (calls are placed via an on-board antenna that is connected by satellite to networks on the ground) and this will hopefully restrict casual use. However, experience and common financial sense tell us that the cost of the service will rapidly go down. Soon airline passengers will be placing telephone calls simply because they can. Just like on the ground. «Hell is other people,» Jean-Paul Sartre used to say. And this is even truer when they’re squeezed into the seat right beside you.