Air rage – coming soon to an airline near you

Boy, I’m old. I’m so old I can actually remember a wooden box on our kitchen wall about the size of a medicine cabinet. It had a hand crank on the side and a Bakelite cone that you took off a hook and held to your ear. It was a telephone. We lived in the sticks and we had a party line. Our ring was one long and two shorts. When anyone on your party line received a call, it rang in everybody’s house. Naturally, we all listened in. Rural entertainment.

Telephones sure have changed. Remember your last airplane flight? Did you notice anything different on the back of the seat in front of you? That boxy in-flight telephone – it isn’t there anymore. Airlines all around the world are removing those in-flight telephones. Turns out they were about as popular as an earache with the travelling public. Few passengers ever used them. And no wonder. Those phones were clunky and ridiculously expensive to use.

I say: no loss. One of the pleasures of taking a flight (and they are exceeding few these days) is the knowledge that such trips are largely phone-free. Up in the air is one of the few places left where you can get away from Paris Hilton-clone airheads and Type A businidiotbarking away like rabid dogs on their G.D. cellphones.

Naturally, there’s a move afoot to change that — a move initiated by the airlines. Some marketing genius has decided that airlines could pick up some Brownie points by allowing cellphones in flight as “an added customer service.”

Well, it might please the dedicated cellphoniacs but it’s guaranteed to tick off everyone else who lashes out buckets of bucks to flit from here to there. Including the folks who spend more time in the air than you and I. In-flight crew members think cellphones in flight is the dumbest idea to come down the pike since the Edsel. They’re worried about air rage — resentment from other customers who think plastic food, dwarf seating and oxygenless air are burden enough to bear without having to listen to some clown in the next seat shouting to his secretary in Winnipeg about next month’s inventory updates.

“Most of us are against it because customers don’t want it,” says one flight attendant. “Can you imagine flying from Toronto to Vancouver and everyone yelling into their cellphones, ‘We’re about to land! We’re about to land!'”?

It’s not just stupid — it’s dangerous. Cellphones are banned in flight for good reason — they can interfere with electronic transmission between the cockpit and the control tower. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there have been 76 reported incidents in the past five years in which portable electronic devices interfered with navigational systems.

And here’s the kicker: even if Robert Milton, Dick Cheney and Bill Gates got together to lobby for cellphones in airplanes, they probably wouldn’t work.

Most cellphones cannot reach a base station from beyond 10,000 feet. Commercial flights routinely soar at altitudes three and four times that height. Most in-flight phone conversations would consist of large gobs of static punctuated with blasts of dead air. Of course, we know how yellphone addicts would handle a phone that wasn’t working at 35,000 feet — they’d just scream louder.

But I have no illusions. They’ll figure out a way to get cellphones on flights. It’s inevitable. The cellphone is the unstoppable juggernaut of Information Technology. Cellphones are so dominant, they’re not even cellphones anymore. They’ve morphed into a kind of umbrella über-gizmo that does everything. You can send and receive e-mails on your cellphone. You can play games, take photographs and receive inspirational messages from Deepak Chopra. You can even sign up for a service that will download movies to your cellphone.

Yep, that’s how I want to spend my spare time — squinting at a three-hour Hollywood epic unreeling in the palm of my hand.

And one day soon, no doubt, we’ll be able to fly from Salmon Arm to Summerside listening to several dozen cellphone conversations simultaneously.

Boy, I’m so old I can remember when eavesdropping on the phone was fun.