Shut Up and Fly

4 minute read

The FCC may soon allow cell-phone use during air travel. Before takeoff, let’s take a look at the situation into which these phones are about to come skulking like insolent houseguests.

First, you got up too early and drove across town in soul-dampening traffic. Then you stood, downcast and barefoot or in your socks, in TSA lines and submitted to pat-downs and the glares of people who seemed to feel their lives had been ruined when you took too long to put your shoes back on. Next, you jogged a mile to your gate to wait in another formidable line for the chance to race on board and claim that hard-to-find space for your carry-on bag (a space that seemed intentionally designed to be just a little too small as a way to encourage you to check your bag and pay a fee).

Now, finally, you sit down–and confront, for the first time, two randomly selected flying companions with whom you will vie for armrest dominance over the next two to 12 hours, even as you develop useless opinions about their body aromas and choices in footwear. In a best-case scenario, you’ll spend most of your day exchanging germs with these people, as per the International Air Traveler’s Code (which says that if you don’t have the flu by the time you board, you should at least try to be well on your way to “definitely coming down with something”). This is when you notice that your seatmates are conveniently located closer to you than they were the last time you flew, back in the olden days (last month) before the seats were shrunk to 17 inches.

These first fragile moments of passenger interplay amount to a probationary period of goodwill in which the right to control the audio waves around your own head are being negotiated. So the seasoned traveler opens with a noncommittal half- smile, filled with the edgy glacial remove of a well-meaning mortician. This expression tells the others they’d better be on their best behavior because their relationship with you is hanging by a thread. You want them to believe they had damn well better play their hand with care if they expect your assistance with the inflatable slide “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

In these early moments, you must cautiously monitor the behavior you’re encouraging in others. If seatmates start to babble to you, revealing themselves to be primary narcissists so enchanted by the sound of their own chatter that they’ll keep talking even after they’re out of topics, a nicely executed arctic glare will often ice them into silence. Of course, this works only with actual 3-D humans, the kind who are restricted by time and limited options.

Once cell-phone calls are permitted, the FCC will be offering these people a behavioral bypass. If their fellow passengers shut them down, they can turn to their phones instead. The people on the receiving end of their calls may not even be paying attention. They might be playing video games and going, “Mmm. Mmhmmm.”

Meanwhile, the poor, beleaguered seatmate remains stuck, listening to these grating narratives being repeated by middle-aged and older people, the only ones who still talk on phones. Their hearing isn’t that great, so of course they speak too loudly as they seek ways to inflict favorite stories on people who’d rather not hear them.

Now what recourse does the besieged traveler have–aside from seeking revenge through mile-high karaoke?

Meanwhile, there is even more to fear because the young people who no longer talk on their phones are texting constantly as they search for more status updates to post somewhere. Heaven forbid you should fall asleep with your mouth hanging open or your hair sticking up in an unacceptable configuration. Next thing you know, you are being ridiculed on hundreds or thousands of tiny screens, depending on the social-media clout the young phone owner in question wields. Suddenly your picture is being forwarded on Twitter or Instagram emblazoned with the legend “WTF?????? Gross …” Probably something much worse.

Of course, the counterargument will be made that people need their phones now. They can no longer be expected to exist for hours without them.

That is why, if we have to sanction disagreeable behavior, I suggest a return to the tried-and-true compulsions of yesteryear, a time when people knew what to do with their hands and their lips besides talk. Because at least when you’re coping with in-flight smokers, it’s still possible to hear yourself think.

Markoe won multiple Emmy Awards as a writer for Late Night With David Letterman. Her most recent book is Cool, Calm & Contentious.

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