March 28, 2006 7:18 pm

Fight the mobile phone invasion at 30,000ft

Our right to peace and quiet is guaranteed by fining taxi drivers from India who honk as they drive: a habit acquired through years of dodging cycles, cows, cars and the carefree in the crowded streets of Calcutta and Karachi. Flights are not allowed to land in Washington DC beyond late evening so that those living around the airport enjoy what is now widely regarded as the human right to undisturbed sleep. Yet, noise pollution, practised with abandon in your face and in your ears, is tolerated in enclosed spaces in buses, trains, restaurants and cinemas and is spreading like bird flu, only more surely and more harmfully to our peace of mind and mental health.

The final straw in the US (followed, presumably, by everywhere else in rapid sequence) is the impending decision to allow the use of mobile phones on flights. In this way, loud passengers will be free to jabber away in a closed cabin, saying “hi” to Joey, Joel and Josie at home just for the heck of it, or conducting their business, which is no concern of yours, by public declamation. What can be done if the US Federal Aviation Administration allows this madness to happen, as it will? I say: we are not out of remedies.

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Consider what you can do in the
aircraft cabin itself. Before the Good Samaritans came down on smoking, I had a friend who was so annoyed by the smoke getting into his eyes in
restaurants – as the smokers at the next table held their cigarette in a
Marlene Dietrich gesture, almost under his nose – that he carried a little Sanyo fan that would blow the smoke back into their startled faces. While the stewardesses would not let you turn on a CD player at loud volume to drown out the mobile phone users, how about screaming into your own phone (without, of course, actually dialling and paying) sweet nothings to an imaginary girlfriend or boyfriend? This is worth a try. But frankly, how long and how often can such ridicule and retaliatory noise-making be sustained, without unleashing a competition in steadily higher octaves, one which the vulgar freaks you are trying to drown out are likely to win?

A more effective remedy has to be a collective, legal response. How about encouraging environmental and human rights groups to file lawsuits against the agencies that grant the permission for the use of mobile phones in flight, and against the airlines when they act on such permission? The American Association of Retired Persons might be convinced to join such a class action, in defence of the peaceful journeys sought by the increasing numbers of senior citizens taking discounted vacations from the rich countries.

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, under Article 8, guarantees that “everyone has the right to respect for his private . . . life” and “there shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and necessary . . . in the interests of . . . the economic well-being of the country”. Surely, the “private life” includes a life of peace in which one can snooze without the gaggle of gratuitous talk that certainly does not advance any country’s economic well-being.

But what of the rights of the mobile phone users? These are more frivolous than those of the fellow passengers on whom they impose. Besides, the airlines can readily accommodate their desire to talk without imposing on those who seek a quiet flight. Mobile phone users should be provided, at an extra cost charged to their tickets, with a phone booth at which they can queue for their turn. That would protect their rights without invading ours.

The smoking ban on all flights came along when the science behind the problem of secondary harm from smoking became well-established. But this harm does not have to be physical; it can also be mental. The stress of having to be in an enclosed space with continuous noise is sufficient to produce high blood pressure, fatigue and other ailments, as the plaintiffs complained in their testimony regarding airport noise in Hatton and Others v The United Kingdom at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2001. It is still not completely clear whether continual emission of radiation from the use of mobile phones on flights could cause secondary brain damage to fellow passengers. If providence were just, it would surely affect the brains of the users. But who believed at first that cigarettes could hurt the smoker’s own family?

So, perhaps the compelling answer may be to threaten the mobile phone companies themselves with ultimate liability, reminding them of the cigarette manufacturers who eventually faced huge financial damages. Eventual retribution could be the most powerful deterrent to the rising spectre of cellular noise.

The writer, university professor, economics and law, at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of In Defense of Globalization

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