FAA reprieve: Cellphone silence is still golden while in the air

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 10:20 AM
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Air travelers can now read e-books such as Kindles, listen to podcasts and watch videos at low altitudes—but not use cellphones.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Hear that? How can you not? That guy on his cellphone is talking loud enough for everyone at Gate C10 to know his latest office drama.

There’s no tuning him out, but there is a reprieve once you’re buckled into seat 23B and Mr. Cellphone wedges himself into 23A.

Commercial airplanes are one of the few places on Earth — or just above it — where we can enjoy a guaranteed cellphone silence.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this month expanded the use of electronic devices in flight, it continued the FCC's ban on phone calls — and that’s just fine with a surprising number of passengers.

Sixty-one percent of passengers said phone calls should be restricted, mostly because they’d be noisy and distracting, according to an Airline Passenger Experience Association survey included in the FAA report.

“I don’t want to listen to people’s conversations, certainly not during a flight,” said Steve Carples, of Minnetonka, who flies eight to 10 times a year. “These sardine cans are getting packed denser and denser. You can hardly put your arm down on an arm rest. There’s just no privacy.”

The cellphone chatter — on top of the crying infant and the snoring seatmate — would be just one more irritant, but a particularly difficult one to ignore.

Proven annoyance

Lauren Emberson knows a lot about annoying cellphone conversations.

Her 2010 study revealed that as we go about our lives, our brains tune out routine things and instead focus on the unusual or unpredictable — stuff that may require us to take action. For example, a conversation between two people seated nearby is easy to follow and, therefore, easy to ignore. But an overheard cellphone conversation leaves out half the dialogue, demanding our attention as our brains try to fill in the blanks.

And that, Emberson said, is why they are difficult to tune out.

“It’s something you see in many brains, not just human brains. It allows us to learn things about the environment,” said Emberson, of the University of Rochester. “It also makes cellphone calls irritating.”

A 2013 study by the University of San Diego said people who heard a one-sided cellphone conversation were more distracted than those who tried to complete anagram puzzles while two people talked in the background.

It’s more frustrating when you’re trapped — in a line, on a bus or waiting to board a plane. “Bystanders who are exposed to these personal conversations may not have control over the situation, thereby increasing their levels of annoyance and frustration,” the study said.

‘Cell yell’

Then there’s the volume.

Sometimes an overheard call seems loud because people focus on it and tuning out the other noise, Emberson said.

But sometimes people are louder. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore calls it “cell yell.” If you have to take a call in public, she offers two suggestions: Keep your voice to a low conversational tone and don’t talk about private matters.

“I once overheard a conversation of an attorney talking to a client,” she said. “I didn’t know the attorney, but what if I knew that person? It violates privacy.”

Even seemingly innocuous conversations can make those within earshot squirm, especially when they can’t get away.

“That is probably one of the most common complaints we get,” said Robin Selvig, customer service manager for Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, the south metro bus service.

SouthWest Transit, another bus line, established “quiet zones” on its buses about five years ago at the suggestion of cellphone-weary riders.

“It’s the fellow passengers who will enforce it,” said Len Simich, SouthWest Transit’s CEO. “If someone’s on the phone they may tap them on the shoulder and point to the sign.”

SouthWest Transit’s spring survey found that 95 percent of its riders appreciated the quiet zone on the buses.

Dan Wilczek, a rider who’s also on the SouthWest Transit board, said he was skeptical of the policy at first, worried it would lead to conflict between riders. But now he relishes the half-hour of silence.

“In our lives and work, there aren’t many quiet times that are available to you anymore where the phone isn’t ringing and people aren’t jabbering,” he said.

Except his bus — and airplanes overhead.

 

Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758

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