My heart sank quicker than a descending A380 last week as I read the news that phone calls could be allowed on some flights as soon as this summer.
The European Commission has announced that it will allow airlines to provide full 5G technology on planes, which would enable phone calls mid-air and eradicate the need for devices to be put into flight mode. Post-Brexit, it’s unclear whether the new rules will extend to flights to and from the UK, or on UK carriers; but plans are definitely in motion for EU airlines and journeys.
As any frequent traveller knows, a flight is more than simply a way to get from A to B. Used well, it can be a bubble of calm, a moment to step out of the grind, a handful of hours in which to do exactly what you want instead of what others want you to do. And you have the perfect excuse: I’m sorry, I was offline. Unavoidable. Compulsory. Until now.
Of course, some people need to do a bit of work on a plane (including, occasionally, myself) – and I absolutely do not begrudge someone tapping away on a laptop to fill what they see as “dead” time on a long flight. But the ability to do this – enabled by the steady introduction of in-flight wifi by many airlines since 2006 – heralded the beginning of the end of the aeroplane as a peaceful, tech-free pod; a place where no clamouring colleague or family member on the ground can reach you. For me, flying without connectivity is a privilege, not a flaw.
You become a big, swaddled baby, a Queen Bee being brought snacks and drinks while doing nothing more taxing than choosing between book, podcast or movie
Just as the usual drinking hours etiquette no longer applies the minute you step into an airport, the daily grind of work (and family, if you’re travelling solo) evaporates into thin air on a wifi-free flight. You become a big, swaddled baby, a Queen Bee being brought snacks and drinks while doing nothing more taxing than choosing between book, podcast or movie (yes even on Ryanair – get downloading on Netflix or Prime). This feeling of floating above it all without a care in the world – let alone a ringtone – is, surely, the mythical “cloud nine”.
And it’s not all about consuming culture and snacks. Things you miss when glued to a phone or laptop on your flight include but are not limited to: people watching, leg stretches in the aisle, thinking about what you really want to do in life, and staring at a carpet of stars you’re 36,000 feet closer to than usual. The point is, you’re free from the digital world, a decision taken out of your hands and enforced by the environment you’re in.
As such, I try to book my flights outside of any hours that I may need to be working or in contact with work, even on wifi-equipped flights – because I treasure the rare, precious opportunity to do exactly what I want to do, unbothered by anyone, several hours on the trot.
When I think of a world with phone calls on planes, my mind jumps immediately to that hackneyed Dom Joly sketch of the early Noughties: “HELLO? YEAH, I’M JUST ON A PLANE. ON A PLANE. A PLANE.” People who think nothing of having long, vociferous conversations in confined spaces are the very worst people, but you’ll find them in every train, bus and clinic waiting room. At least on a train, you have the option of getting up and wandering into the next carriage.
Imagine your neighbour in 26K dialling into a long, involved conference call as you try to read a guidebook on a transatlantic flight. Imagine having to hear every detail of someone’s “mental” night out for the length of a 6am hop to the Canary Islands. Imagine someone calling you mid-flight: your boss’s name flashing up on your phone screen just as you pop open those insanely delicious mini pretzels, or press play on Thor: Love and Thunder. It’s chilling. Have we not earned the right to “dismiss call” for the length of a plane journey?
“The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” said the European Commission’s Thierry Breton in a statement last month. But what if we want a limit to our always-on, ever-bleeping, 24-hour, blue-light-emitting connectivity culture? Like choosing to charge your phone outside of the bedroom at home, couldn’t we agree that some spaces are sacred? Especially those with such close quarters, and such a great view.
Imagine your neighbour in 26K dialling into a long, involved conference call as you try to read a guidebook on a transatlantic flight
There aren’t many places left where we’re forced to down tools, tech-wise, and relax free from the expectation of enquiries, alerts and alarms. One of them is under the water; another is on the lower-tech flights of the world. We need to protect these bubbles, these havens of call-free, nag-proof time, where we can step outside of the grind on the ground and simply be. This relentless march towards 24/7 connectivity isn’t entirely a positive – and there’s still time to stop it in its tracks.
It can’t be too late, surely, for us to give this dystopian vision a big, fat, collective “No”? It would surely be fairer to poll passengers on whether or not they would like the option to be able to log on to wifi or make a call in the air. If 51 per cent or more say yes, then fine: the other 49 per cent of us will have to suck it up. Call it “Techxit”. But I’d be willing to bet more people than not like a bit of peace, quiet and disconnected bliss above the clouds.