Piloting choice

Piloting choice

Aminor prediction for 2008—privacy will be a growing concern.

No, we don’t mean the grand privacy issues that erupt when individuals battle intrusive governments, the paparazzi, online hackers, data miners, phone marketers or journalists with hidden cameras. Ours is a more mundane concern, but one that is important nevertheless. It’s about privacy, freedom and censorship on airplanes.

That ubiquitous call to switch off our mobile phones when we are on board a plane could soon be history. Earlier this year, low-cost carrier Ryanair Ltd said its planes would soon have new base stations that will beam to satellites and not interfere with communications between the pilot and ground control. These base stations will allow flyers to chatter away without putting the plane at risk. Others will duly follow.

European airlines are currently waiting for regulatory approval to allow the use of mobile phones aboard their planes. Meanwhile, they are asking some flyers whether they like the idea. One survey cited by The Economist in September said that while 80% of those asked approve the use of mobile phones in the air, a little more than 50% would personally use their phones because of higher costs.

But that’s still a lot of chatter in the cabin—with people hearing what you are saying and you hearing what they are saying. And what if you want peace and quiet? Do the airborne chattering classes have a right to deny you your moments of peace? And do you have the right to shut them up?

But that’s not all. Many airlines now have the technology to offer access to the Internet in their planes. That brings another set of privacy and free speech issues. What if the traveller sitting next to a child is surfing pornographic sites? Whose needs are more important? “Airlines have to be sensitive to the fact that customers are (seated) close together and many be able to see each other’s PC screens. More to the point, young people are often aboard the plane," Internet pioneer Vincent Cerf told a news agency recently. Some such as Australian carrier Qantas Airways Ltd are trying to block sites that they deem offensive. It’s censorship at 30,000 feet.

All these issues pose genuine dilemmas for liberals. It’s really the age-old question in a new context: how should we balance individual liberties with social rules and norms that inevitably restrict some of these liberties? It used to be asked once whether freedom meant the freedom to cry fire in a crowded theatre. Tomorrow it will be asked whether you have a right to visit a porn site when a 10-year-old boy is sitting 2 feet away from you in a plane.

The super-rich can escape these dilemmas by owning their own planes and making their own rules. That’s the airborne version of another form of escape—the private Caribbean island where you can get a suntan without being photographed.

But the rest of us—be it in business class or economy class—will have to wait and see how the rules of the airborne game emerge. There are no easy answers and no easy exits.

Till then, we’ll have to just grin and bear it. So, what if the baby to your right and the sleeper to your left are joined by a loquacious caller in the row behind and a pervert across the aisle? That’s life aboard a plane, you could say. Does that sound difficult? Perhaps it does, but if we have learned to live with in-flight dining that tastes like cardboard, we can make our temporary peace with these new problems as well.

Would you like to use your mobile phone or surf the Internet when airborne? Write to us at views@livemint.com