The horrifying possibility that the person in the seat next to you on an airline flight will initiate a conversation is becoming more remote, thanks to rule changes announced last week in the United States that will likely have a ripple effect in Canada. All you have to do to benefit from this leap in progress is arm yourself with a smartphone, the greatest communications device ever devised for avoiding communication.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is telling airlines that they can now allow passengers to keep using their smartphones, as well as tablets and e-book readers, from “gate-to-gate,” as long as the devices’ cellular signals have been turned off. Waiting the agonizing eight to 10 minutes for the seatbelt sign to be turned off will be a thing from a cruel past.
Airlines will have to demonstrate to the FAA that their aircraft are properly “hardened” against radio interference emitted by electronic devices before proceeding. But once that hurdle is overcome, the only moments when passengers will be exposed to vocal interference emitted by humans will be during actual takeoff and landing.
Given that airlines in Canada will want to remain competitive, and that our rules already allow for it under the proper circumstances, it won’t be too much longer before misanthropic passengers on domestic flights here will be liberated from the agony of staring straight ahead, feigning sleep or, worse still, feigning interest in the content of an airline magazine for the duration of the climb to altitude.
Instead, the responsibility of preventing the person next to you from disclosing personal information, such as their first name, will be borne entirely by the earphones that dangle insouciantly from your head and travel to the device in your hand. This is so powerful a social signal that it is conceivable that you might even be able to smile at your neighbour in a way that momentarily acknowledges his or her presence during the critical pre-takeoff taxi period, while still making it clear that your listening holes are unavailable to them.