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Solving Predictable Problems: Using Cell Phones On Airplanes

Thanks to Google partnering with Boingo Wireless, now through September 7th New Yorkers are going to be able to use free Wi-Fi on many of their subway commutes. The two companies hope that a lot of businesspeople will get hooked on the idea of converting their travel time to business time and will subscribe to the service when the free Wi-Fi changes to fee Wi-Fi in September.

Using Wi-Fi on a subway or even on a plane is a great idea. I’ve used Wi-Fi on many flights. Wi-Fi on a train or an airplane is perfectly fine because it’s quiet and does not disturb the other passengers.

But using a cell phone on an airplane…now that’s a completely different story!

Recently, Virgin Atlantic adopted a policy that allows passengers to use their cell phones on their A330 Airbus, and if all goes well, they will offer the service on as many as 20 of their other planes by the end of the year. At first, this may sound like a good idea, but if you think it through a little further, you will see it’s a major problem waiting to happen.

How can I be so sure? Because I fly a lot. As a matter of fact, I’m a million-miler on several airlines. And as someone with so many miles under his belt, I can honestly say that I hate the idea of cell phones on airplanes.

It’s not that I don’t want to make a call during a flight. Actually, I wouldn’t mind being able to make a call on the airplane. However, I don’t want to listen to the person next to me make a call, and I’m willing to give up my ability to make a cell phone call on an airplane just so I don’t have to listen to the person next to me talking loudly on his/her phone, especially on a cross-country or international flight!

I believe in solving predictable problems before they happen. And unlike allowing Wi-Fi on planes and trains, I’m suggesting that allowing phone calls on planes is a major predictable problem that we could easily solve by not allowing any other carrier to do it. (And, by the way, I predict that Virgin Atlantic will be forced to reverse their new policy.)

Think about this: How many times have you sat next to someone in a public area who was talking loudly on their cell phone? Even though you had no interest in their conversation, you had no choice but to listen. This happens to me often because I spend a lot of time in airports and other public areas. In these areas, it’s easy to move to another seat far from the distracting conversation. On a plane with assigned seating, it would not be possible to avoid this distraction.

We all know that airplanes are noisy places and people will talk louder on the phone to try and speak over the engine and background noise.  Let’s face it, many aging Baby Boomers who are starting to lose their hearing (thanks to listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin at full volume when they were young) already talk louder when on the phone. And let’s not forget about emotional conversations, which can sometimes get really loud. If you’re the one sitting next to a loud talker discussing a boring subject and trying to get some work done…or some sleep…or just some quiet relaxation time…you’re out of luck.

But it’s not just your seat neighbor who may be the loud talker. Multiple people on the flight would be talking at once. And the more people who talk at once, the louder they have to talk. Have you ever been to a restaurant that’s filled to capacity? What happens? Everyone has to talk louder, which makes the restaurant a very noisy and uncomfortable place to be. And when the people at the table next to you have had too much to drink, does the volume increase?  Think of the people who might drink on planes.

While I like Branson’s style and innovative approach to business, and I like Virgin Atlantic, I think their policy to allow cell phone use on flights is one of their less-than-stellar ideas. So my vote is to solve a predictable problem before it happens and make sure we do not allow cell phone calling on airplanes. Let’s keep the skies friendly…and quiet.