There’s no doubt that air travel has gone to the birds since 9/11 shook up the industry. But having racked up millions of air miles before 2001, I can honestly say most of that airtime was enjoyable, and for one reason: I love the solitude.
No calls, meetings, fires to put out, decisions to make, or problems to troubleshoot. Just peaceful, no-stress, me-time to work, read, snooze, or relax with dinner and a movie.
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Granted, when you fly as often and as long-haul as I did, the perks pile up fast. I doubt if I’d feel the same way if all those miles had been in coach. Still, the best thing about air travel, especially for executives and business leaders who are used to be on and in control 24x7, is the precious down time.
Not anymore. It’s beginning to look as if the last place you can hide from information and communication overload – the only place where you have no choice but to disconnect – may soon throw its cabin doors wide open to the entire spectrum of wireless airwaves.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed most restrictions on in-flight Wi-Fi internet and email access. But in a far more controversial move, the Federal Communication Commission last week said it would soon propose an end to its long-standing ban on in-flight cellphone use.
In other words, you might soon be free to blab your little head off, along with hundreds of your fellow passengers, in a completely contained echo chamber where alcohol is served and nobody can escape.
And while the FCC is set to begin debating the issue in December, even if it decides to allow in-flight voice calls, commissioner Tom Wheeler says it’s up to individual airlines to make the final call.
In the event the ban is lifted, I’m sure you’ll be hearing plenty of lightweight tips on how to be a respectful and considerate flyer from all the usual etiquette experts and bloggers. But when it comes to smartphone use, I’m pretty sure our culture has moved far beyond the realm of etiquette and consideration.
Since we’re in unchartered territory, let’s just for a minute try to be realistic about this, okay?
While I’m no fan of oppressive, unnecessary nanny rules, there are still significant safety and security issues to consider. I’ve got to believe it will be much harder for flight attendants – who widely support a continued ban on voice calls, incidentally – to control a cabin filled with hoards of callers during an emergency. In any case, I’ll leave that to the experts and what will no doubt be a lively and informed debate.
Survey data show that people are generally split down the middle on the question of whether flyers should or shouldn’t be yapping it up on the phone en masse in the cabin. Airlines could section off the plane, as they used to do with smokers. But like smoke, voices carry, so I doubt if that will be an effective solution.
Perhaps the most often cited reason for allowing voice calls is that expectations of availability and privacy have shifted over the years. Now, employees – even friends and family members – are expected to be available practically 24x7. I say that’s dead wrong and it’s long past time we put the kibosh on it.
All it does is feed our controlling and micromanaging instincts, our need for instant gratification, and our ego-feeding sense of self-importance. There’s certainly no legitimate personal or business argument for it. We’re all happier and more productive when we have well-defined downtime and time to think before reacting.
Surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with Wheeler’s approach: to propose an update to the FCC’s “outdated and restrictive” rules, as he called them, and let the debate run its course. And, if his agency ultimately decides to allow voice connectivity, to let the airlines figure out how to walk that fine line between freedom and nuisance.
Personally, as someone who craves what little solitude there is left on and above the Earth, I think it would be a big step forward and a good compromise to allow texting and instant messaging, but not voice calls. That’s the closest thing to the best of all worlds I think we’re going to get out of this.
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