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The Most Annoying Thing About Cellphones on Airplanes

It's not overhearing conversations. It's listening to people complain about overhearing conversations.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

My very smart colleague Nora Caplan-Bricker has a post up this morning bemoaning the Federal Communications Commission’s announcement that it is considering allowing passengers to use cell phones aboard airliners. Caplan-Bricker notes, accurately, that a long-distance flight is one of the few places left in American life where you can read undistracted. But she also agrees with the chorus of critics who have reacted to the news with a less sophisticated gripe about the prospect of overhearing on-board conversations: “There’s nothing like an afternoon spent listening to other people’s phone conversations to destroy your faith in humanity,” she says.

In fact, I can think of one thing: Listening to other people complaining about an afternoon spent listening to other people’s phone conversations.

Is there any monologue in modern American life more dreary than the travel gripe? The TSA line evoked a Soviet department store, the seating density called to mind a Tokyo subway car—and don’t even get me started about the larcenous baggage handlers, the mendacious departure-time announcers, and the pervy guy next to me. The Onion once had a great riff on the subject headlined “Airline Food Under Fire from Area Comedian.” It’s funny because it’s true (and not about the airline food).

Somehow we’ve evolved a conversational etiquette where you’re supposed to suck it up when discussing the rottenness of mundane things like the dreary lunch-hour options near your office or the way the self-scanner line at the supermarket always seems to get held up by the dunce in front of you who doesn’t get how to key in fruit codes himself. Encounter moderate unpleasantness doing something done by roughly 4 million people around the world every day, though, and you have license to spin a long tale of woe. (The only comparably exhausted socially permitted gripe is complaining about the earliness of holiday jingles.)

But for all of our baroque complaints about the indignities of air travel, when was the last time you heard a truly unique tale of airborne misadventure? And now you’re about to hear more: The cellular yakker in seat 31A is set to join the surly agent (“Why can’t they just tell you when the delay is going to end?”), the inexplicably long runway line (“I mean, why push off from the gate if you know there’s a backup?”) and the unhappy infant (“can’t they, like, shut their kid up?”) in the now familiar litany.

I have a friend who has a rule for out-of-town visitors: I’ll come pick you up, but talking about your flight is forbidden once we leave the airport grounds. It’s a great rule. Now his guests will just have to talk even faster in order to summarize all the unhappy details in the short time between the curb and the exit. Or maybe they could just call from the air.