On airplanes, good headphones make good neighbors

You probably have a lot in common with Rick Brunson.

Okay, maybe you’re not an information technology consultant, and maybe you don’t live in Barnesville, Ga. But you probably don’t like lots of noise — especially when it’s in an already noisy place, like the inside of an aircraft.

So if you’d been on his recent flight from Atlanta to Dallas and worn a pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones, as he did, you might have reacted in much the same way he did when he heard his seatmate blasting a home-improvement show on her phone, minus the earbuds.

“My choices were to either crank up the volume and deafen myself or listen to the annoying background chatter from her phone,” he says. “If I had a second set of earbuds with me, I would have given them to her.”

Why don’t airlines force passengers to use headsets? In preflight announcements, flight attendants strongly encourage passengers to practice good manners by not sharing their in-flight entertainment with the rest of the cabin. Those sentiments are echoed on airline websites.

The United Airlines site, for example, says, “As a courtesy to other travelers, please use headphones when listening to any device.”

Courtesy to other travelers, however, seems to be in short supply.

As cabins become more crowded and seats shrink, passengers are complaining about the noise. A 2015 survey on airline etiquette by GfK Global, a market research firm, found that half of all airline passengers were annoyed by “audio-insensitive” seatmates who talked loudly, engaged in noisy video games or played music — roughly the same as the previous year.

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Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is getting worse, and solutions are scarce and not always effective.

You can try asking a flight attendant for help. That’s what Jarrett Sorko did on a recent flight after his seatmate engaged in a video game and chat session on his laptop. He discreetly excused himself and asked a flight attendant if she could have a word with the unruly gamer. The crew member complied.

“This seemed to work for a short time, but within 30 minutes, he was back at it again,” says Sorko, who works for an Internet company in Mountain View, Calif. “Talking to his friend as if this guy was in the seat next to him. I became incredibly frustrated. I was forced to put up with this for the remainder of the flight.”

You can also ask the passenger directly. Kerwin McKenzie, a former airline employee, has seen this happen often, and it usually works. “Most people don’t like confrontation,” he says. Often, they’ll ask a flight attendant to remind a fellow passenger to use a headset, but just as often, a passenger will politely ask another passenger.

Benét Wilson, an aviation journalist, found herself in a similar situation on her way from Washington to Barcelona last month: seated near a mother whose child was playing a loud computer game with no headphones.

“I politely asked her to have him turn it down,” she says. At first the child refused, but with some encouragement from other passengers and his mother, finally agreed. There was just one problem: He didn’t have a headset to use.

“Long story short, I gave him an extra pair I always keep for situations like this, and all was well,” Wilson says.

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All of which brings us to the topic of your own headset. You should have one, and not just any headset, but a pair of reliable noise-canceling headphones, which can also cut the hum of the aircraft engines. Hogni Kamban, a headphone reviewer for the site Picky Ear, says these headphones are perhaps the biggest development in noise management for airline passengers. They’re more effective and affordable than ever.

“By blocking out a large part of the cabin noise, they can actually be used without listening to volumes that are dangerously high,” he says.

Bottom line: If you’re listening to anything that a seatmate might not want to hear, use a headset. Jodi Smith says it’s the right thing to do, and she should know: She’s an etiquette consultant from Marblehead, Mass.

“Be sure your actions do not negatively impact those around you when you’re on a plane,” she says. “This means wearing headphones when listening to music, viewing a movie or watching a show. This also means you should restrain yourself from singing, humming or whistling along to music only you can hear. And the volume should be low enough that your seatmates can’t hear the words, dialogue or beat.”

But could airlines require headset usage? Sure, but such a rule would be as difficult to enforce as a seat-belt requirement. Although it might make sense for safety reasons, and while the cabin crew can strongly suggest you keep your device plugged in, there might not be enough flight attendants on board to turn the crew into a headset patrol. It’s better for passengers to do the right thing of their own free will — and maybe with a nudge or two from their fellow travelers.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • technomage1

    This is the problem with society today – everyone thinks the rules don’t apply to them, and they don’t care one bit about the results of their actions on others.

  • jmj

    Unfortunately, many people just don’t care or are oblivious to the cares of others around them.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Ugh! What happened to common courtesy? Have we gone so low as a society that we actually have to be reminded that you shouldn’t play your music or laptop so loud that others can hear?

  • AJPeabody

    I’m afraid we have moved to a less than golden rule; Do unto others as others have done unto you. It’s Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!

  • MF

    From the economist’s viewpoint, this is a case of ‘externalities’. My behavior affects the common good (peace & quiet) without cost to me, so I’ll do as much of it as I want to. Without disincentives, why stop???

  • Michael__K

    I don’t condone any of the behavior described in this article, but how is this any different from society at any other time?

    Flash back 30+ years, people chain-smoked on planes. That was rather inconsiderate of others even if it was legal. Our school librarian chain-smoked in the library, even though I’m pretty sure it was against school policy.

    I don’t think the original GameBoy and its predecessors even supported headphones, but regardless, kids used them everywhere and disturbed those around them.

    In those days, people left graffiti, chewing gum, and dog poo everywhere.

    Violent crime was 65% higher. That’s one measure of rule-breaking and lack of consideration for others…

  • Regina Litman

    When I was a teenager, I had a portable AM-only transistor raidio. It came with an earphone. I won it in a radio station contest. Even though it was cheaply made and inexpensive, I don’t think I could have afforded it when determining where my meager allowance and babysitting money would go. One day, the earphone broke apart, This was a big deal because I didn’t drive yet, rode the city busses a lot, and liked to listem to the radio when I was on the bus. What I started doing was going all the way to the back seat and playing the radio at very low volume right up against my ear. This was in the 1968-1970 time frame, still several years before kids with boom boxes played them at high volume and with total disregard for the other passengers on the bus. I was well into adulthood before I llearned that replacement earphones could be purchased by themselves for much less than the cost of a new radio at stores such as Radio Shack.

  • Michael__K

    There are considerate and inconsiderate people in every era.

    It’s ironic you mention the 60’s, because that period was famous for all the hand-wringing about the decaying moral fabric of society. Boomboxes may not have been widely available yet, but you could find plenty of references to complaints about excessively loud motorcyclists, and young drivers playing decadent music at high volume with the windows down…

  • JewelEyed

    I checked our original Gameboy just now. It did. And all of the precursors that I’ve ever seen had an option to turn the sound off at least.

  • AAGK

    Recently I experienced something similar in a Dr’s waiting room. The person was blasting music on their phone. I assumed he was mentally ill and left it alone.

  • AAGK

    And don’t forget people walking in the street with “boomboxes.” I love the gameboy reference. I wonder where mine is. I was totally oblivious to it annoying anyone until this moment.

  • AAGK

    So cool you saved yours. I’m mad i don’t have it. I feel like I had it confiscated at camp and never got it back.

  • AAGK

    I thought of boomboxes too, still oddly prevalent on NY subways.

  • JewelEyed

    It was my brother’s. It’s busted (turns on, makes noise, screen doesn’t display), but all the rest of ours still work (2 GB Pockets, 2 GBCs, 1 DS)

  • AAGK

    Sometimes people lose sight of their manners and it may be a one time self absorbed moment. Once I purchased a bottle of tequila on the way home from Mexico and failed to close it properly. It was in my bag and I forgot what happened but the next thing I knew the entire bottle was poured on my seatmate, a total stranger. He had to fly soaking wet covered in alcohol. I felt horrible but he was a good sport.

  • AAGK

    So true. Have you ever been stuck in traffic next to someone with horrific music blasting in the next car and you are next to them for over an hour?

  • Randy Culpepper

    How is someone chatting online any more intrusive than if he or she was chatting with another passenger?

  • AAGK

    No one has brought up the earphones where you can still hear everything they are listening to. So annoying.

  • Rebecca

    I don’t know where mine is either, because my brother took it and he was the kind of kid that lost everything and just threw it anywhere. I was the opposite, everything in its place and just so. I can’t tell you how many board games I’d had for over 10 years with each and every piece in the cubby it went in with the money in order and faced. He would play 1 game and it would be missing at least 2 pieces.

    You made me smile about the gameboy. I DO still have an original donkey kong hand held game and a working Nintendo, complete with a game genie. My kids aren’t quite old enough for video games, but I’ll definitely have them playing it along with whatever new stuff is out.

  • Bill___A

    I feel it is the duty of the flight crew to deal with any disruptive passengers. As it is apparently illegal to disregard the instructions of the flight crew, it should be a simple matter to enforce No one should be using a speaker in a plane (or in an airline lounge for that matter) regardless of whether it is a game, phone, tablet or computer. Since the airlines are good at making rules, this is one they should make.

  • Jim

    We recently took our two year old on a flight to Orlando (let’s be serious here if you really don’t expect tons of young kids on the flight) and did everything we could to prepare for her being cranky, etc by bringing an iPad, snacks, crayons, etc. But she was in a foul mood…

    Kicking, screaming, throwing, and I think I saw her head do a 360 once or twice. Short of gagging her we could not keep her quiet.

    We were against the bulkhead behind us and I apologized to the people in front and next to us and offered to buy them a drink when she went to sleep. To my surprise a man who said he was a frequent traveler said he wanted to buy us a drink because we “did everything we could to keep her quiet, unlike most parents he sees”.

    We talked about this same issue and he said the problem is no one talks to anyone anymore. Sometimes people don’t realize they are intruding and all it takes is being polite and telling them. Otherwise, he told me they just might be an a-hole!!!

  • jsn55

    I am flabbergasted at the idea of someone not using earphones on an airplane. I have never observed anyone that stupid or obnoxious. Excess noise is a problem in public for sure, but most places you can get away … all the FAs need to do is tell the person to use earphones or turn it off. Passengers are required to comply with their instructions, why is this not an easy solution?

  • jsn55

    I’ve seen young children in this mode on airplanes … and other passengers glaring at them. I don’t have any children, but even I know that kids do this some times …. it’s easy to tell if parents are making an effort. I go out of my way to let them know that I understand their situation and that not all of us are so small-minded.

  • Jim

    It’s all about the effort I guess, because no one has ever given me the look or complained. Not that she has acted up more than two times, but still kids in confined areas is a recipe for disaster.

  • DChamp56

    It seems common courtesy isn’t common any longer…

  • AAGK

    That’s amazing. I want a Tetris match:)

  • AAGK

    Perfect manners on both sides! I think folks are used to the idea of live child voices or babies crying, but there is something especially jarring about playing music or noisy games bc it’s unexpected and easily avoided.

  • Mel65

    Although not the same thing, this reminded me of a recent flight I took. My company, because of the work I do, mandates and provides a 3M privacy filter/screen for our laptops. All the guy next to me could see was me looking at what appeared to be a black screen. He kept giving me side eye. I wasn’t doing any work; I was playing a “Mystery Game” (think Ravenhearst) with the sound effects off, but it was funny to watch him out of the side of MY eye, trying really hard to see what was on my screen.

  • James
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