Shut up!

Blaring TVs, cellphone chatter, incessant P.A. calls. Is it too much to ask for a quiet corner at the airport?

Published February 26, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

A businessman covering his ears with his fingers
A businessman covering his ears with his fingers

Before hitting the heavy stuff (bad pun), let me address the recent incident involving Kevin Smith, the director whose thrown-off-a-plane saga got a firestorm of controversy going. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about the whole thing, but basically, I think, it comes down to this: If you're infringing on the person next to you, or outright presenting a safety hazard of some kind, there' s a problem. If you're not, there isn't.

Smith submits that he was not presenting an inconvenience or hazard in accordance with Southwest's own rules, in which case Southwest may have erred.

Naturally this whole topic will slide into a cuss-filled discussion about why the seats have to be so damn small in the first place. To which I respond: in order to keep airfares as cheap as the public demands they be. Per-seat margins for airlines are razor thin, and the only way to keep economy tickets affordable for everyone is to configure aircraft the way they are configured.

Contrary to what people think, aircraft seating layouts have not really changed over the last 30-plus years. Airlines are not, in fact, cramming in more seats, as conventional wisdom holds. There is no less legroom or arm space than there ever has been, really. A 737, just to pick one (Southwest has an all-737 fleet), has always had six seats across in economy class, with roughly the same amount of average legroom as you'll find today. If anything there is slightly more room in economy than there used to be. Newer models like the A320 series, for instance, are slightly wider than older narrow-body standards such as the once-common 727, 707, etc. And certainly a wide-bodied A330 or 777 is a better ride than, say, an old DC-10.

What's changed, of course, is our average waist size.

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Now let me hit a few things from the letters forum a couple of weeks ago. Readers segued nicely from my "You know what bugs me?" rant — about flight attendants who make the welcome speech while the plane is still screaming down the runway — to recording their own long litany of complaints.

First on the list is a comment from "websmith."

"What's really annoying," submits websmith, "is when the airlines tell you that there's no first class seats available ... and the first thing that you see upon boarding is a flight attendant or pilot sitting in first class for free. Apparently these entitled astronauts don't realize who is responsible for them having jobs."

Not quite. It is true that employees riding standby will sometimes be upgraded to a vacant seat in first or business class. However, it is not true that said seat will be denied to a paying passenger in order to make this happen. I cannot tell you why the opportunity to upgrade wasn't available on a given flight; the rules for mileage redemption and whatnot can be Byzantine and hard to follow, and they don't always seem to be fair. You can direct your complaint to the airline's pricing, marketing or frequent flier departments. All I can tell you for sure is that no premium seat is ever blocked for the benefit of a freeloading employee. If one of us is sitting there, that seat was not open for upgrade and would otherwise be going out empty.

One exception to this would be an occasion when an on-duty crew member is being repositioned — deadheaded, as we say. Work rules may stipulate that a repositioning pilot is entitled to a seat in business or first. Though even this is very rare on domestic routes — it's mostly an international thing.

Why do I have a feeling you don't believe me?

Next up is a letter from reader Douglas Moran.

"You know what really bugs me?" he asks. What really bugs Moran is "How friggin' loud it is in airports." He goes on to describe the typical gate-side cacophony of cellphone conversations and incessant public address announcements.

Ah, now we're on to something. There are few of us who wouldn't sympathize. And apparently Moran has not been a regular reader of my column, or he would know that I've long been an airport noise crusader (er, complainer).

If anything, the problem is getting worse, and it's a peculiarly American phenomenon. Latin American airports are sometimes clamorous, but those in Europe and Asia are often blissfully quiet. One of the things that struck me about Korea's fabulous airport, Incheon International, was its cathedral-like calm. In the States it's another story. Here's a cut from the new edition of my book:

If American airports need to borrow one idea from their counterparts in Europe and Asia, it's that passengers need not be bombarded by a continuous loop of useless and redundant public address announcements. In many U.S. terminals you'll have three or more announcements blaring simultaneously, rendering all of them unintelligible in a hurricane of noise. Furthermore, we must seek and destroy every last one of those infernal gate-side monitors blaring CNN Airport Network. These yammering hellboxes are everywhere, and they cannot be turned off. There is no button, no power cord, no escape. Not even airport workers know how to shut them up.

The problem isn't about crowds. For the most part it isn't the passengers themselves who create all the racket, but rather the profligate means through which we attempt to control, cajole and entertain them.

I was at JFK not long ago, trying to find a quiet spot to read between flights. It was late in the evening and the terminal was more or less deserted. Yet the decibel level was at full-on headache thanks to the endless security warnings and CNN chatterboxes. The departure lounges were empty, but the announcements were still playing and all of the TVs were going. Not only was this an assault on my senses, but an offensive waste of energy to boot.

(On that second point, I noticed the moving walkways and escalators were also running nonstop, even without riders. What could be more wasteful than powering thousands of pounds of moving sidewalk when there's not a pedestrian in sight? And what is it that prevents Americans from installing those motion-sensitive triggers that the rest of the world always seems to have?)

Curious, I tracked down a couple of employees, including a supervisor, and asked if they could turn a few of the TVs off or, at the very least, lower their volume. Neither of the workers had any idea how the sets were controlled. "You'd have to ask the Port Authority," I was advised with a shrug.

And good luck taking matters into your own hands. There is a neat little device on the market called TV-B-Gone — a universal, remote-control off button that fits on your key chain. A surreptitious tip of the hand, and bing, off goes any TV within about 40 feet. A major coup, you think?

Alas, TV-B-Gone is effective only against a small percentage of sets, not including most of CNN's. The makers of the blasted electronic cyclops have caught on, and screens are now insulated against tampering. Merciless as it sounds, they've installed blockers that effectively force you to watch. Not even the volume is adjustable, and not even those companies on whose turf the broadcaster is operating — the airlines — or the customers they are aggravating, can do anything about it. Talk about capturing your audience.

And while I don't want to take this too far, isn't there something just a tad creepy and Orwellian about televisions that cannot be turned off?

I have a feeling that somewhere out there is a survey in which a majority of travelers insist that they enjoy and appreciate the chance to watch TV at the gate. That may well be true, and I am not suggesting they be denied this privilege outright. But a license to entertain and a license to harass are different things. If the TVs have a right to be there, we should also have the right to get the heck away from them, should the desire arise. That's what's missing.

But television is only one facet of the noise plague, and not the worst offender. That dubious honor goes to the insane cycle of public address announcements that bellow endlessly from the terminal sound system. As I type this article, I'm sitting at Gate B18 at the U.S. Airways facility at Logan Airport in Boston. I am pleased to report there are no TVs. There is, on the other hand, an eternal barrage of nonsense crackling from unseen speakers. I've been counting, and there's a maximum of about 10 seconds between announcements.

And virtually none of those announcements, by the way, serves any useful purpose. Why, for instance, are we being told about TSA's liquids and gels restrictions after we've passed through security? Ditto for the dissertation on curbside parking regulations. We can also do without the numerous airport promotional spots. Did you know that Boston's Logan airport offers more daily flights than any other airport in New England? No kidding, I thought it was Bangor, Maine. Not to mention I am already at Logan Airport and thus I fail to see the value of a promotion whose purpose is to get me here.

And don't get me started on "threat-level orange" or my good-citizen duty to turn in fellow passengers for "suspicious behavior."

Between these extremely important proclamations we're treated to (some) music and (much) advertising, courtesy of "Airwaves, the Sound of Boston Logan." This is the airport's in-house, prerecorded "radio" station. Airwaves delivers "high-quality programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week." I know this because that, too, is being broadcast at regular intervals, together with a pitch inviting customers to purchase ad time, through which they can "reach [which is to say annoy] tens of thousands of air travelers."

Periodically drowning out this brain-scrambling sound storm are the slightly more valuable gate-side pages and boarding calls. Of course, no attempt is made to first pause whatever is already playing. The second wave of blather is simply added to the first one — except it's louder. At some airports this sonic layering is unbearable. I have heard up to four P.A. calls playing simultaneously.

At Logan, even the moving walkways have their own separate sound system, with directives to attend to children and the warning, "The moving walkway is nearing its end." Do we really need this coddling claptrap? As if people can't figure out when they need to start moving their feet again? (Of course, you're supposed to walk on a walkway, not stand and block the way, but that's a complaint for a different time.)

Then you've got the shrieking kids, the beeping carts, the cellphone chatter and so on. It's a multi-front attack that, short of applying headphones or earplugs, is virtually inescapable, seeping into every nook and corner of the terminal, at all hours of the day or night.

If ever all of this struck me in a moment of intolerable clarity (and hilarity), it was the night last Christmas in JetBlue's new shopping mall — er, terminal — at JFK, where, rising above the din, just barely audible, were the strains of Bing Crosby singing "Silent Night."

Flying is stressful enough, and nothing pushes already jangled nerves over the edge more quickly than excess noise. Do we really need this? What are they thinking?

Ironically, the actual loudest things at an airport — the airplanes themselves — are almost never heard, buffered behind walls of glass and concrete. And it's not until you step aboard your plane that you finally find some peace. The transition from terminal to cabin is almost palpable. So long as there isn't a baby nearby, the cabin is a welcome sanctuary of sudden quiet. (Though not everywhere. Some airlines have, you guessed it, taken to playing music and promotional spots during the boarding and disembarking process.) And for exactly this reason we all should be very concerned about proposals that would allow the use of cellphones while aloft.

Once on board, for the quietest ride en route, try to sit as far forward as possible. The loudest seats are usually in the back, near or behind the engines. Airplane acoustics are strange, and the difference between forward and aft can be quite substantial. If you're seated in a back row, engine noise comes at you in a deep, loud roar. Up front, on the very same plane, it can be almost completely silent.

And finally, one more player in the what-bugs-me game ...

"What makes an airport terminal like a casino?" a poster called "mgriscom" wants to know. "With very few hidden and randomly placed exceptions, there are no clocks."

I usually wear a watch, and this is something I've never really thought about, but mgriscom is right, you don't see clocks in airports, which doesn't make a lot of sense when you consider that punctuality is part and parcel of flying.

However, here's a trick: All you need to do is check out one of those arrival and departure monitors. They tend to be conveniently placed, and they almost always display the exact local time, usually along the bottom or top of the screen — provided some idiot hasn't turned them off with his TV-B-Gone.

Not only will they tell you the time, but best of all they are silent!

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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