It’s called the Quiet Zone. Introduced this month by AirAsia X, a budget airline based in Malaysia, this eight-row oasis offers soft lighting and a promise: No children under 12 allowed. The cost of keeping them out? An extra $11 to $36 a ticket.
The notion of segregating children on planes has long inspired debate, even satire. On April Fools’ Day, Canadian airline WestJet joked that it was creating child-free cabins by putting kids in a “special VIP” area of the plane. An accompanying video showed children scooting along a luggage belt and being stored in a plane’s cargo hold.
But a deeper story underlies the hullabaloo over children’s areas. It’s about silence, and how different cultures value or don’t value it — a nuance that becomes obvious when we travel.
Music blaring from headphones, booming cellphone conversations and garrulous passengers are as much a part of travel today as removing your shoes at the airport.
And the din has plenty of people “annoyed, stressed, oppressed,” said Mike Goldsmith, the former head of the acoustics group at the National Physical Laboratory in England and author of “Discord: The Story of Noise.”
“The hearing system evolved in part as a warning system, so there is a natural tendency to classify noise as threat,” he said. “But, more importantly, noise is an intrusion, a challenge to our rights over our immediate environment.”
In the travel milieu, noise has become so commonplace that it’s increasingly being managed with rules, like cellphone bans on buses and quiet cars on trains.
If you do find yourself on a noisy plane, it may be calming to remember that if you have an expectation of silence it’s because you consider it to be a social norm. Not everyone has the same social norms, though. Nor should they.
“The culture is changing on the airplane from a very polite space to one that’s much more culturally diverse,” said Setha Low, a professor of anthropology and psychology and the director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
“And there’s a lot of difference between the norms.”
Those differences can lead to conflicts, especially on planes where people from all over the globe converge. Some cultures, Spain’s, for example, are more gregarious than others, like Scandinavia’s.