Future Tense

Airlines Should Make Like Amtrak and Create Cellphone-Free Quiet Flights

Finish that call before you get on the plane.

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

UPDATE, November 21, 2013: Officials are moving ever closer to making cell phone calls on airplanes a reality. Will no one speak out against this madness?

The Federal Aviation Administration has already started allowing customers to keep their electronic devices on during takeoff and landing, and NBC News is now reporting that the in-flight Wi-Fi service Gogo will soon start offering text and voice service during flights.

Texting is a blessedly silent activity, but phone calls are beyond the pale for most sane flyers. I do not care about your dinner plans or what terrible thing your sister-in-law has done to you now. Some of us are happy misanthropes who would rather travel in a giant crypt than a vestibule full of live humans. So I was upset to hear that along with allowing electronic devices during takeoff and landing, airlines may start letting people take calls in-flight.

But a more terrestrial form of transport may have a solution to this problem. In the Northeast corridor, Amtrak offers a “quiet car” option—for no extra cost, you can reserve a seat in a car where talking on the phone is verboten. This is genius, and I propose airlines follow Amtrak’s lead by offering “quiet cabins” in exchange for a fee. Ideally, they would double as child-free zones.

Some people will decide it’s worth it to roll the dice and hope they aren’t seated next to some Chatty Cathy—either that, or invest in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. For others, the extra $50 (or whatever arbitrary price airlines would decide to set) would be well worth the value of a relatively quiet flight. The main hitch, of course, is that you can’t easily section off certain areas of an airplane cabin the way you can with trains, meaning entire flights would have to be designated as quiet or not.

“But it’s ridiculous to expect customers for pay for that,” you’re saying. I don’t disagree. But the same thing could have been said about free checked luggage five years ago, or free meals a decade ago. Back in the day, my hometown airline, Midwest Express, had cushy leather seats (two per row! in coach!) and gave freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to passengers. Where is Midwest Express today? It was absorbed by Frontier Airlines in 2010. There are no more chocolate chip cookies.

If, as Daniel Sarewitz recently wrote, the words “airplane mode” send a shiver up your spine, then you can enjoy the comfort of texting while taking the risk of a loquacious seat partner. If, however, you shudder at the thought of someone gabbing with her Aunt Thelma at 40,000 feet, pay up for peace and quiet.