A prayer to the flight deities: please keep cell phones off the plane

In his most recent column, Ask the Pilot’s Patrick Smith addresses the air travel topic that has become a frighteningly real prospect over the last couple years: relaxation of the cell phone ban on airplanes (mobiles to you Brits).

It’s a simple column — subtitled “Are cellphones and laptops really dangerous to flight?” and addressing a variety of electronic devices — that nevertheless makes me wish I hadn’t had my morning coffee. Then my stomach wouldn’t feel cold with fear and I could pretend that the prospect of mobile phones being used on airplanes is just a bad dream. “Alas,” says Smith, “I fear the regulations are destined to change at some point, and cellphone use will become commonplace at 35,000 feet.”

What, what are airlines thinking of, even toying with the idea? It’s not the marginal silly buggers the phones might play with an electrical system that bothers me. It’s the very real, very significant hell they’d play with passengers’ already overstretched psyches. It’s the last straw.

The seats are too small for anyone who’s not a Lilliputian. The food on many flights (even across the US, which can take as long as flying to Europe from New York) is almost nonexistent. People are too fat, too smelly, too whiny, too perfumed, too sharp-elbowed, and too weak in the bladder. Sometimes the bathroom doesn’t work. Sometimes you get banged by the beverage cart. The air is too hot, too stuffy, too cold. The pillows have as much neck support as a diaper. Babies scream, bringing that particular blood vessel to dangerous pulsing point in many overfed businessmen. The coveted leg room of the emergency exit row always goes to either the teenager who spends the safety talk listening to his iPod, or the many-skirted woman who doesn’t speak English.

And yet still we fly. Still, mostly, we manage to hold it together just long enough to get off the claustrophobic, uncomfortable contraption. Still, we manage not to kill one another on planes. If airlines decide to add cell phones to the mix, our last shred of humanity might just boil up and evaporate while we’re still stuck on the tarmac.

The usual arguments in favor of mobile use on planes always circle back to the same idiotic mantra: we need it for work. Need to make business calls, catch up on email, keep the economy greased.

Oh, yeah? Greased with what? More useless, time-wasting meetings? Claptrap. I don’t buy it. Most businesspeople I know are grateful to have un-linked time on the plane when they can catch up on — gasp — work. Sometimes sleep, but mostly work, when they aren’t interrupted constantly. This harebrained argument reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from mystery author Laurie King: “Brains are wasted on men. All they use them for is playing games and making money.” They’re certainly wasted on the people who think this is a good idea.

Cell phones already manage to drive people nuts on commuter bus and rail trips. Britain’s flirtation with the “quiet car” on trains often serves only to give passengers something to grit their teeth about, a reason for the headache when they come home. Do airlines really want to see the underslept businessman or the mother trying to escape for a quiet weekend suddenly snap, and turn frothing at the mouth to the people who simply will not shut up?

Maybe you’re better than that. Maybe you’re just coming back from your eye-opening year teaching English in Korea, or chasing yogis in India, or breathing in the clean air of the African desert. Maybe you’ve got that extra modicum of inner stillness that lets you om past the overused perfume, the screaming baby, the extra flesh in your seat, and the man who needs to call every person on his contact list and the girl who needs to relate her last date in detail. Loudly. So everyone knows how important they are. But when you get on the plane after your rediscovery of your inner soul, the two or three hundred people around you might already be pushed to snapping point. Do you really want to be on that flight?

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