I’m going to raise my hand here and say I did this. It’s not ideal to write a column about an incredibly annoying trend in aviation and have to admit you’re one of the culprits, but… I am. Here we go.
It’s a flight from Sydney to Nadi, Fiji, and my partner and I are deep in the weeds. Our youngest child isn’t quite two yet, so he’s practically free to fly and sit on our laps. Have you ever tried to get a nearly two year old to sit still on your lap for four hours? That can’t happen. At least not for us.
And so our four year old sits in his seat and watches Bluish On an iPad with headphones and basically just living the dream, the almost two-year-old man fidgets, tries to walk down the aisles, tries to pull all that stuff out of the seat pockets, tries to rummage in the pockets, tries all the snacks tear open
So we do the only thing we can think of. Wiggles, on the phone. Put it in his hands and hope it lasts him a few minutes. He won’t be wearing headphones, but he’ll be staring at a screen while Emma Wiggle sings nursery rhymes, so that gives us a few moments of sanity.
However, I am aware that it might bring a few moments of anger to those around us. It’s the headphone thing. We turn the volume down as low as possible, to a setting that our child can just hear and hopefully nobody in front of us behind us can pick up. But who knows. Maybe we don’t get it right.
That’s the trend. That’s the trouble. People who listen to music or watch movies or TV shows on their phones or iPads without headphones.
You will instinctively know if you have been near someone who has done this. And you’ll also know that it’s only getting worse, more people seem to be doing it, somehow more people think it’s okay.
At least we tried to keep the volume down. I’ve sat on planes next to people who just blast the sound out of their home theater like it’s Dolby Surround. It’s hard to believe that they just lit a cigarette next to you. For real?
But at least anecdotally, I’ve seen this happen more and more. You thought people who recline their seats were bad? (It’s not, by the way, they are allowed). You thought filling the carousels was a chore? You thought people being at the front of the security queue and suddenly realizing they have to find and remove all of their liquids from their pockets are torture?
Well, how about your fellow travelers firing up their conversation without headphones and worries? To me, this is perhaps the most obnoxious behavior of all.
Part of this is the fault of the airlines. Hardly anyone still offers seatback entertainment on domestic flights. Even some of the planes for nominally full-service airlines like Qantas leave you dry on the film and TV front (although some do offer to stream entertainment to your own device).
Travelers who may not have been on the air for a while, especially after the enforced pandemic break, can easily forget that and find themselves stuck in a small seat for several hours with not much to do. So, out come the phones and on we go with the videos. Not everyone wears headphones. What choice do you have?
(Of course, you have the choice of reading a book or magazine, or just staring into space and not annoying your fellow passengers, but not everyone makes that choice. We’ve gotten so used to being constantly entertained, to being connected to be provided with something to do. Having nothing just doesn’t seem possible.)
That’s part of the problem: assumed services that just don’t exist anymore. The other part is that people just don’t care that much. You would hope that watching entertainment without headphones would not become socially acceptable. But maybe?
I’ve seen this on buses and trains and it’s weird and annoying there and they’re short journeys. I’ve seen it in airport departure lounges and thought it was a little strange. But sitting on a plane for a few hours with strangers literally on your shoulder? Nobody wants to hear the sound effects of the millionth Star Wars spin-off that you happen to have downloaded onto your phone.
But of course we have to acknowledge again that I was one of the culprits. I refer to the extenuating circumstances. Kids are really annoying. By playing the Wiggles at a low volume without headphones, I’m hoping to lessen the annoyance for me and any other passengers around me without releasing too many extra “toot-toot-tchugga-tchuggas” into the atmosphere.
I want to believe that I’ve been successful. But maybe everyone thinks so.
See also: I had a fight on a plane because I wanted to recline my seat — and I won
See also: My long-distance flight into hell with a toddler
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