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.

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.

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.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.