Even though most of us long for more peace and quiet in this noisy world, could it be that we’re not capable of making it happen?
This week, Virgin Airlines announced that it will make cell phone service available during flight time between London and New York. Also, the Economist reports that the so-called “quiet cars” or “quiet carriages” that have popped up on trains across the U.S. and Europe in recent years aren’t succeeding as planned.
Why can’t we all just pipe down for 30 minutes to eight hours of travel time? Planes have, until now, had a no-choice ban on cell phone use – even texting is forbidden once that aircraft door is closed and the pilot has turned on the fasten-seat-belt light, even if the aircraft has not begun taxiing. Ask Alec Baldwin – not even a friendly iPhone-based “Words for Friends” match will be tolerated.
If Virgin Airlines is about to start a trend that other airlines can’t afford to ignore, will we soon be trapped on a flight next to the cell-phone holler of a man talking to his hard-of-hearing mother? Or a teenager fighting with a boyfriend or girlfriend? Will it be less unpleasant if it’s just some person conducting business, while you find yourself re-reading page 109 of “Indignation” again and again because you can’t concentrate, because your seatmate is selling swivel couplings and hose retention systems at 33,000 feet?
Planes are noisy places to begin with. The roar of the aircraft’s engines drone continuously in the background, which many of us think we don’t hear, but we do. Babies crying, people talking, refreshment carts rattling – why not just throw cell phone talking onto the pile, amiright?
Let’s look at the “quiet carriages,” which began as such a great idea. People who needed to take a train to or from work, or just occasionally, can opt to ride in one of these quiet cars, where the rule is 'turn off your cell phone and keep your chattering to a minimum.' Voila! Peaceful trips every day for the stressed and cranky who just want some peace and quiet.
Trouble is, being quiet in these cars is voluntary, and not everyone who lands in a quiet car meant to. They ended up in the quiet car by accident, and had no intention of being quiet in the first place. And there are those who really want the quiet car, but find it impossible to ignore an important incoming call. So, there’s noise, even in the quiet car.
Some train operators are trying to figure out how to make being quiet in the quiet cars mandatory. Trains in Queensland, Australia, are having permanent signs added to show exactly what is expected; a British operator has invested in signal-jamming technology to prevent phone calls. Microeconomics suggests another approach: putting a price on noise.
Fining people for making noise would surely dissuade most, and in theory it’s a nifty solution, but in reality it’s a costly one that will require monitoring and enforcement. Another approach under consideration is to charge more for a ticket in the quiet car, which might confirm the passenger’s commitment to shutting up for the duration of the trip. Make it an optional extra when purchasing the ticket, and the passenger believes they are making a commitment to quiet when they pay the extra fare.
But the risk is that some passengers who pay the extra fare will find an unexpected excuse to breach the silence, and the blood pressure of the rest of the quiet car passengers will shoot up. Noise can be very unhealthy.
Still, some believe that charging a premium for quiet could solve the commitment problem. They’re also suggesting schemes that reward the zipper-lipped: a rating system among fellow passengers, for instance. The theory is similar to those people who pay for their purchases on Ebay in a timely fashion – they get stars and accolades, so everyone knows they’re a good Ebayer. But it isn’t clear how this would work for a quiet car rider, unless perhaps you can have the premium waived if you’re quiet for, say, 20 rides in a row and you can prove it because your fellow passengers motioned their approval. If losing your hard-won reputation as a courteous quiet person offsets the short-term gain from using the phone, well, it’s hard to say how many folks would value such a hard-won reputation.
Now, back to the cell phones on flights news. According to Virgin, cell phone service will cost the same as any other international roaming voice call, which can add up fast. At $1.29 or more per minute, price could be an effective deterrent to anything but the most critical calls for most flyers.
How do you feel about chatter and cell phone use on trains and planes? One more unpleasantry, or just another 55-75 decibels added to the din? Send us your thoughts.