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Dial M for mobiles

August 16, 2008 16:25 IST

As I read more and more about how mobile phones are going to become a reality on flights, the more I am filled with absolute dread. Mobile etiquette in India is already non-existent; people think nothing of leaving their phones on or holding a long, loud conversation during plays, films and other public shows.

Anytime you are in a bus taking you from the aircraft to or from the terminal, you learn -- whether you like it or not -- who is working on which deal, how much various properties on the market across the country cost, current office politics in Airtel, Wipro, Coke, KPMG and so on, and at times, even what's being cooked for dinner at someone's house that night.

There is a desperation with which people switch on their mobiles the moment a plane touches the ground (and in an alarming number of instances, well before it touches the ground) which never fails to amaze me.

An astonishing number of people need to urgently inform someone the second they have landed, only to add that they will call them once they have collected their baggage. An equally incredible number of phones start ringing the moment they are switched on post-flight, so I have begun to feel that making eye contact with one's mobile makes it ring. Mine however remains stubbornly silent each time I land, despite my starting at it angrily.

I have seen more than one fed-up air hostess plead with more than one stubborn passenger, who simply refuses to put off his/herphones at take-off time, almost as if their life depended on it. I have even witnessed one passenger who switched on his phone mid-flight to show some pictures to his co-passenger.

When the air hostess objected, he couldn't quite comprehend what she meant as he was 'not talking on the phone but just showing some photographs'.

What then will happen when people can speak aboard an aircraft on their mobiles unchecked? And what will happen when in a bid to earn higher ancillary revenues, airlines make the service more and more widely available? And what will happen when the rates that allow you to talk in air on mobiles fall as precipitously as the ones that allow you to talk on the ground?

What will happen, when along with wailing babies (this is an Indian flights specialty), one has to contend with what Atlanta or Redmond have to say, brokers negotiating a sale, detailed descriptions of the dreadful symptoms of different ailments, angry spouses trying to reach common ground and so on?

What will happen when what could otherwise be a peaceful and fairly silent two hours or -- one shudders to think -- a seven hours-night flight to X or Y destination turns into a cacophony of ring tones and voices?

I for one can't say I am at all delighted by this leap of technology. This threatens to make people's mobile phones obsession more acute than ever (I know several people who keep looking at their handset or checking it for a future message).

While I am fine with anyone's obsession (though I do find it amusing), this is one that will impinge on everyone else's peace of mind, especially in a country where citizens are not exactly known for being soft-spoken.

Already, two rival companies -- OnAir (Airbus's in-flight communications provider) and AeroMobile are busy selling their equipment and signing up potential carriers and some of the leading world carriers are on board. Ryanair, Emirates, Qantas, Air Asia and Air France are some of the airlines hoping to charge -- at present -- $2.50 per minute to make calls and 50 cents for a text message.

Indian airlines will, I'm sure, soon be on this list, as they attempt to strengthen their balance sheets on revenues from non-flying avenues.

A recent article in The Economist on the subject rather simplistically concludes -- based on trials done by Aeromobile on some Emirates flights -- the phenomenon may not be as annoying as some people think. But I don't see why not.

Rates charged may seem high today (and therefore usage will be low), but will sooner or later tend to fall just as they did on the ground.

They are also quite likely to vary from airline to airline and may well be linked to usage (the more you talk, the less you pay). Secondly, while The Economist's conclusion may hold true for Europe and some of the other Western countries (where people seem to value their own and each other's privacy), it may not be so in India.

India has taken to mobile telephony with a vengeance few countries can match, as is evident from the usage numbers and revenues of leading mobile phone operators in the country.

Will there be no-talking zones on flights, somewhat akin to no-smoking zones in restaurants and bars? What happens if an ailing passenger -- who needs some quiet -- finds himself next to one who simply must clinch some deal during the flight? Or if one is hoping to catch a short nap on the flight before an important meeting on one of those nightmarishly early flights?

Will ICAO have some guidelines for the volume at which such conversations can be conducted ? Will there be a strictly observed switch off time on long night flights? If not, flying may become even more of an ordeal than it already is.

I have been told on more than one flight that I clearly don't have any children of my own (after I have patiently borne two hours of loud, steady wailing in my ears) on asking parents -- politely -- to try some, new innovative method of silencing their wailing brats. 

This, again, is a peculiarly Indian feature -- you rarely encounter this for extended periods of time in most flights overseas, I've begun to think they drug their kids.

So, when mobile phones become the norm rather than a novelty, I risk being banned from flights for having tried to strangle more than one of my fellow passengers.

Dial M for Murder.

Anjuli Bhargava