Dynamist Blog

Cell Phones on Planes

On Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen recently asked for arguments in favor of a government ban on cell phone use on planes: "Can I claim that cell phone calls are a socially wasteful means of signaling to your spouse that you care? Can I claim that commercial airplanes are modern (short-term) monasteries, and that markets undersupply such temples of silence?" His policy arguments may be tongue in cheek, but I share Tyler's objection to introducting more chatter into airline travel. I like to think, read, and sleep on planes (not necessarily in that order), and I already resent the constant chatter, some of it government-mandated, from the pilot and flight attendants.

I can't see any serious argument for a government ban, but that doesn't mean I foresee a future of yack-filled air travel. Airlines have ample reason to restrict or segregate cell phone usage, either by policy or suasion. Steve Portigal posts a comprehensive analysis of the various interests involved and concludes with a recommendation airlines could apply to all sorts of issues:

Could the airlines do anything to mitigate the impact of the doofus? [The doofus screaming on his phone, that is.--vp] If the airlines want to start changing behavior, they might take a cue from JetBlue, where the current seat back cards take a positive and humorous approach to creating a common experience. Rather than telling passengers what they are forbidden to do, they seek to engage everyone in a common goal of having a positive experience during the flight. Perhaps the most effective way of creating this type of change is not more warnings and admonishments, but to create a totally different experience, making it clear that the passengers aren't following the standard script for "trip on a plane" but reframing that experience into something new, where new rules, expectations, and social norms can be created from scratch. You might not litter in a small community, but perhaps you would in a big city. You wouldn't introduce yourself to someone in a grocery checkout, but you would at a party. Change the frame, and the behavior can change, too.

JetBlue sets the tone from the moment you board: on most airlines the flight attendants watch while you struggle to find space for your carry-on luggage. On JetBlue, they greet each passenger, take their bag, and hurry ahead of them, finding the next open storage space, optimizing space usage (just like a great grocery packer knows what they are doing, so do these guys), relieving the passenger of a frustrating task, and speeding the boarding process. Already the rules begin to be changed. Once you get to the seatback card (labeled a "guide to how to make the world a better place...one flight at a time.") you may begin to consider the flight experience differently. The card reads "Be nice. Attitude is everything on JetBlue. Kindness, respect and consideration are the way to a nice flight." Amusing graphics that evoke traditional flight safety cards depict passengers creating a common experience, for example introducing themselves to each other. Sure, many of us do that on a plane, but JetBlue takes some ownership of it, and encourages it, with just enough humor. Other graphics discourage people from bringing their own smelly fish on board, or sleeping on the shoulder of their neighbor, or removing their shoes when their feet are too pungent.

JetBlue (and some of the other newer, more innovative, and interestingly cheaper airlines) are rethinking the entire experience they are creating for passengers. A fresh look at air travel won't eliminate turbulence, of course, but they could easily extend this to help people manage their behavior. Rather than a turf war over knees, shoulders, ears, and mouths, creating a common experience could encourage coorperation, establish new social norms (and social sanctions rather than punitive ones) that would allow for polite cell phone usage. Sure, I'm skeptical too. Adding some verbiage to the pre-flight announcement and posting a few stickers isn't going to do it. A new approach to creating a relationship between the passengers and the airline, and between the passengers themselves is the key. The dinosaur airlines aren't capable of this (i.e., United's Ted is a cheaper United, with better graphic design; it's not a re-think of the flight experience the way JetBlue is).

And now, for a little excerpt from the glamour book proposal-in-process:

Treating glamour as a luxurious or nostalgic style, instead of an imaginative process, has more than intellectual consequences. This category error leads to futile efforts to restore lost glamour through aesthetic tinkering.

Thus airlines try to recapture the glamour of air travel by redesigning their flight attendants' uniforms. But flying is no longer mysterious, nor is it graceful. Fashion tweaks cannot overcome the public's ample experience with late flights, crowded seats, grumpy crews, crying babies, and minimal service. Giving flight attendants a stylish, slightly retro look may improve crew morale and make flying a little more pleasant, but fashion alone can't bring the glamour back. Glamour is not a quality that can be created with aesthetics alone.

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