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Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 16:13 UK

'I'm on the plane... the PLANE'

By Clive James

Presidential candidate John McCain and staff use mobiles on a plane
Fly and talk

Plane journeys are to be endured rather than enjoyed at the best of times. Now imagine your fellow passengers yapping away into their mobile phones.

Early last week a body called Ofcom okayed the use of mobile phones on airliners at any height above 3,000m. Ofcom said it was up to the airlines to deal with any possible problems, perhaps through setting aside special "quiet zones" on the airliner.

As I read these assurances with due alarm, it struck me that such problems might well emanate from those of us who had previously lived in the hope that the whole plane might be a quiet zone before we climbed aboard. Already we can hardly bear to travel on trains, owing to the prevalence of the kind of mobile phone user, usually male, who proves his virility by talking at the top of his voice for the whole journey, a subject on which I may have touched in previous broadcasts, so let me apologise for saying it again; not a request you will often hear from a mobile phone user.

On trains, some of us who do not use mobile phones have already gone vainly berserk in the effort to shame those who do into shutting up for a few minutes.

Now, thanks to Ofcom, we will be entering a whole new realm of irritation where we will be hardly able to bear travelling on planes. On a train you can get off at the next station and walk. On a plane you'll be getting off at Dubai with your hands locked around a mobile phone user's throat.

Donald Trump on his private plane
Donald Trump shows how it's done

But someone in the telecoms industry was quick to reassure us that passengers on aircraft would be more likely to send texts or e-mails than talk on mobiles. He said: "Social norms, as well as excessive background noise, may dissuade most people from making phone calls in crowded planes."

But I have already met Social Norm, and I know all too well that Social Norm never dissuades anyone from making mobile phone calls. Social Norm is the one making the mobile phone calls. The excessive background noise, on any form of transport, is made by a score of Social Norms shouting their thick heads off, and all it does is make them shout louder. I also invite you to note the abyss of misunderstanding that lay behind the spokesman's contention that "most people" would be dissuaded from making mobile phone calls on crowded planes.

But surely unless everybody can be dissuaded, then it would take only one mobile phone user to turn a long-distance flight into a journey through Purgatory.

Fun of flying

The thought of making my next business trip to Australia in the company of Social Norm and his mobile phone, not to mention his vociferous wife Social Norma and her mobile phone, was enough to make me wish that whole business of flying could be brought to an end. It seemed too much to hope for. But then Terminal 5 happened.

Whether or not we should enjoy such bungles is a question easily settled - if we're in them, we hate them, and if we aren't, we love them

Terminal 5 happened at Heathrow, where so many irritating things happen. Terminal 5 was meant to solve them. Still boiling about the lost bag that wrecked your holiday? Relax. Terminal 5 would have the most advanced bag handling process known to science. Your bags would get through the terminal faster than you did.

Passengers would be dumbstruck by an unprecedented level of efficiency, fully in keeping with the staggering beauty of a building which Lord Rogers had designed to express the full lyricism of air travel.

All these things were announced before the building opened. A spokesperson for BA, or it could have been BAA, said: "We want to give fliers an experience they'll remember." A spokesperson for BAA, or it could have been BA, said that the new terminal would "put the fun back into flying". And they both got their wish, although not quite in the way they might have hoped.

Passenger waits and yawns at Terminal 5
A fine view of the ceiling

Thousands of passengers got an experience they'll remember. Before the first night of the memorable experience was over, the beautiful ceiling designed by Lord Rogers had revealed its purpose: to entertain people who were lying on the floor, looking up at it. There was a shortage of chairs or benches, because why would they be needed, in a building that had been constructed for the effortless through-flow of multitudes moving almost as fast as their bags? But it was not only a memorable experience, like mumps, it was also terrific fun. The fun had definitely been put back into flying, or, in this case, not flying.

The most fun generated by the not-flying was had by those of us at home, who were watching the show on television or listening to it on the radio. It's the most fun I, personally, have ever had since the night the Millennium Dome opened, when the Director General of the BBC, who had been invited to the launch party of the biggest British marvel since the last marvel, turned up in order to pop his cork about being admitted late, whereas those of us who were actually watching or listening to the BBC were safe at home, sobbing with laughter and hugging each other while we passed the crisps.

Whether or not we should enjoy such bungles is a question easily settled. If we're in them, we hate them, and if we aren't, we love them. Already too afraid of meeting Social Norm on any plane I might happen to catch, I was deep in a soft couch and ideally placed to relish the Terminal 5 spectacle, first of all in the broadcast media and then later on in the newspapers, where the headline act was about to appear.

Cancelled flights at Terminal 5
Terminal 5's teething troubles

I won't name her, because she is only 29 years old, and when all this blows over there is still time for her to start a new career in some less demanding field. But on the weekend in question, the weekend when things went terminal at Terminal 5, she held the position of BAA's Head of People and Change.

The word "change" bulks large in management speak, a tongue in which nobody ever asks what is being changed to what, but only whether or not change is happening, change being a good thing in itself, or else how could somebody be Head of Change, not to mention of People? The Head of Change and People said, with all the confident wisdom of her 29 years, "Our policy has been to create the context for change, then to apply changes within that context."

Well, since that could mean anything it probably means something, and by now, after decades of people in management talking tripe, it is too late to expect that what someone in management says will happen will have any relation to what actually happens, even if it happens as it was supposed to, which in this case it didn't. We can only presume that at least a few of the people who speak this kind of high-flown abstract poetry have some awareness of the prose reality that lies beneath, and that the Head of People and Change will take her lessons with her when she moves smoothly on to her next position as a planning officer in atomic waste disposal, preparatory to her elevation to the peerage.

Stand on ceremony

Can Britain still do what the French call le grand projet, the big project? But of course it can. Britain does almost the whole of Formula One, for example, one of the biggest big projects in the world. It's a matter of management, but that means real management, not management speak, which is a different thing: can-say instead of can-do.

Queen hosting royal banquet for Sarkozys
The royal stops all pulled out

I'd be surprised if the standard of British planning didn't go up after this: it could hardly go down. All the planes will fly again, bearing the voice of Social Norm to every corner of the world, and I'll be glad enough to catch one next time I want to go somewhere. I'm going deaf anyway, and very soon Social Norm will be just a moving mouth.

And Britain should give itself credit for being hampered by civilised limitations. The people around Heathrow who protest at every new expansion of the airport would probably be outnumbered by the people who would protest if the airport went somewhere else. When the French planned their high-speed rail system, the arguments went on for years about how much land should be subject to compulsory purchase, but eventually the builders got their way. In Britain it would be harder, and finally there's something to be said for a country where anachronism still has value. After all, what's so great about the opposite?

To the assembled minds of Ofcom, it seems obvious that the airlines should move with the times, and let mobile phones on to the planes, thus to remove one of the last vestiges of silence. But Ofcom doesn't rule the country yet. Neither does the Queen, really, but at least she's allowed to be old fashioned. President Sarkozy and his ultra-chic wife looked pretty impressed with that when they sat down to dine at Windsor. No doubt the First Usher of the Mobile Telephone was lurking somewhere nearby, but they never saw him. They might have been lucky not to.

Prince Philip with Carla Sarkozy
What Carla whispered to the Duke

When they arrived in Britain for their state visit, the French royal couple landed at Heathrow. They were fortunate that they didn't arrive at Terminal 5 on the weekend, in which event Carla's suitcases might have been arriving in Windsor about now, and she would have had to do the whole visit in one frock.

She would have looked fabulous even in jeans, but there are more important things than glamour. There are more important things than efficiency, although it's seldom wise to say that you're going to set new standards of know-how and then prove that you haven't got a clue.

But Carla knows all about that. When the Duke of Edinburgh asked her how she could change outfits so often without losing track, she said: "My policy is to create a context for change, then to apply changes within that context." But she said it in a whisper, and hardly anybody heard it except him.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who thinks that mobile phones on a plane sounds horrendous. The prospect of having sleep interrupted by these clowns at a time when decreased air quality allegedly contributes to increased air rage suggests incidents will no doubt be responsible for 'incidents' around the world. An excellent article. Please listen BAA.
James, London

Well done, Clive, masterful assessment as ever. Maybe we should solve the "must use my mobile, LOUDLY" problem by banning Social Norm, Norma & any Normettes from travelling by public transport of any kind. Or just send them by Heathrow T5?
Sharon, Portsmouth, UK

It's all very well bemoaning the loss of silence on planes, but people seem to forget that phones can be a vital lifeline. I've used my phone on the train to check the progress of friend in hospital, to report my credit cards stolen, to reassure an anxious relative that I was late, but on my way, and to tell my mother that no, I wasn't caught in the bombing. Without a mobile, I could not have had these conversations for hours, and would have missed vitally important news. Not all phone users are show offs.
Niona, London

Unfortunately, trains don't have stewards/esses. Planes do. Those of us who agree with Clive James should press the call button and complain. If stewards/esses spend enough time running round in response to such complaints, the airlines themselves will quickly ban mobile use.
S Jones, Stevenage

The quiet zones on planes sound a nice idea, however I don't imagine they'll be treated with any more respect than those on trains - most people seem oblivious to the 'rule', or just don't care. Also on a train you have a separate carriage as the 'quiet coach', on a plane how do you stop the noise travelling from areas adjacent to the quiet zone?
Sarah, UK

Phone calls overheard on any form of transport are acceptable so long as they are in a foreign language you do not understand. The actual sound of the voice is not that irritating, it's the pointless nonsense that is often being said, and the thought that some of the work-talk that goes on in trains has no actual function other than to show off to those around the speaker how important a job they do, and to give the impression that without their input wherever they work could not function.
Alan Mordey, Leamington Spa

Actually I beg to differ with your comment re it being men talking away incessantly on trains...personally I have come to realise that it is more often ladies between 17 and 25 phoning friends back to back (from when they get on to when they get off) to gossip about the current state of their mutual love-lives...sometimes fascinating but generally an endless combo of the same irritatingly trite phraseology...sleep not possible!
Peter, London, UK

I'll devote all my flying experiences forever to the first airline company with the guts to ban mobile phone use on their airliners. Val
V McCarty, London, England


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