Cell hell

What is Virgin Atlantic thinking, inviting cellphones to invade the last vestige of chatter-free space?

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Imagine being locked up with a deal-making venture capitalist who’s jabbering so intently into his phone that you can’t even get him to put up his tray-table so you can escape to the bathroom. Besides, it’s pointless to flee; you can’t really get away from the chatter because everyone else in your tin prison is cellphone dependent. This might be your idea of hell, but it’s Richard Branson’s idea of luxury service.

We groaned last week when we heard about Virgin Atlantic Airways’ plans for “Earth Calling,” a service that will let mobile-phone users receive calls while traversing the globe — a service that could eliminate one of the last oases of unconnected time.

After all, about the only good thing about flying is having a block of uninterrupted hours, during which you can’t be reached by phone or e-mail — or anything. It’s the only time some people actually read books or, on international flights, get a full night’s sleep. Imagine how hard it will be to rest when your seatmates are loudly conducting business around you at all hours. Look forward to being sandwiched between a start-up entrepreneur interviewing marketing VP candidates and a socialite recounting the gossip from last weekend in the Hamptons. VC phone home! Will you have to pay extra to be seated in a cellphone-free row?

Already cellphones have encroached on every other public space. People have talked till they’re red in the face about the annoyance of cellphones in restaurants or the hazard they pose in drivers’ hands. But it’s only getting worse. Hands-free headsets now encourage motormouths to blithely shout the intimate details of their lives to every stranger within earshot as they aimlessly comb through clothing racks in an otherwise posh boutique, wait in line at the cleaners or build a sandcastle “with” their kids. (Those headsets should be mandatory on first dates since people lose all inhibitions when they put them on.)

Of course, the noise pollution will only be worse on planes, where you can’t just get up and leave. It’s easy to imagine the fistfights that will break out when an exhausted and irritable traveler is seated next to a jet-set deal-doer. Shouldn’t flight attendants be up in arms about the inevitable increase in air rage? We hope it won’t be long before secondhand cellphone noise will piss people off as much as secondhand smoke, and inspire cellphone-free flights. In the meantime, we’re considering an investment in earplugs.



Virgin seems to think you’ll be able to drown out the noise with its new flight “entertainment system,” which will provide digital video on demand, and e-mail. Branson says, “We have always led the way with in-flight technology and entertainment, and we remain committed to delivering the best for our passengers. Today’s Virgin passenger is guaranteed the most relaxing, entertaining and enjoyable flight ever!” Relaxing? We suggest Branson strap himself into business class for a trans-Atlantic nonstop with urgent e-mail pouring in and a couple of cellheads for seatmates.

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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