Monday, November 4, 2013

Sonic Boom: Why Flying Just Got Really Ugly – And (Potentially) Loud

Sound the alarm! The in-flight cabin experience is about to get much louder – or so it would seem.  After months of debate and a government shutdown delay, the day many of us frequent travelers dreaded has arrived: the use of personal electronic devices (smartphones, laptops and tablets) is now allowed throughout the flight’s duration, including landing and takeoff.

While actual phone conversations and texting remain off limits, a new gadget acceptance precedent – one that could soon turn planes into flying commuter trains complete with loud and obnoxious cellphone chatterers – is taking shape.

Urgh. I can hear it now…

“Omigod, did you hear about Robbie’s party last week?! It was sick! Jacquie got plastered, made out with that guy from accounting and puked on her own dress. Total disaster!”

You don’t say. Do I really need to listen to this rubbish at 35,000 feet? No.

Fortunately, I won’t have to…yet. But, as I said, a change is already in the air and I don’t like it. Even with the provisos and caveats the FAA has included in the lifted ban – enhanced gadget use depends on the airline, the weather and the aircraft – the last vestiges of a place where books, magazines and some quiet contemplation don’t look antiquated are rapidly receding.

It’s ironic that a digital “last stand” is being fought onboard passenger planes that feature advanced avionics, Wi-Fi, flash food-prep technology and seatbacks capable of displaying live TV, movies and virtual shopping malls. Sometimes I feel like it’s a battle that should have been lost years ago. 

Only it hasn’t. The question is why?

I think it comes down to what air travel means to most passengers; whether powered by propeller or turbine, air travel has long evoked a sense of welcome disconnection. The fair-or-foul vagaries of weather strongly influence whether you travel at all. Once you’re in the air, pilots control your destiny. And if there’s a midair disaster, odds are you won’t survive. There’s a kind of peace in that morbid realization. Your life is in others’ hands. Cocooned by the whirr of powerful engines, millions of passengers take flight attendants’ advice to heart, literally sitting back and enjoying their flight – uninterrupted.

Even without nonstop texting and phone calls, some of that welcome quietude is about to be disrupted. Now your fellow passengers will board in zombie mode: plugged in to their private little worlds. Except, unlike with books and whispered conversations, smartphone and tablet games will inspire grunts, random screams, shouts of joy and spirited sibling rivalry. Changes like this will also inspire an uptick in Wi-Fi as passengers move – linked, synced and wired – from terminal to plane without worrying about having to power down.

Of course, it’s possible the coming volume invasion will be mitigated by more aggressive airline loyalty programs that section off “quiet” cabin areas and honor requests for hours of low-volume gadget tinkering.

One way or another, these changes are coming and it’s time we all face the music – shouts, screams, and any other cacophony that makes flying a louder, less enjoyable experience.

I must admit I’m dreading it.

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