People using phones and tablets on planes with no headphones: The annoying new trend

I’m going to put my hand up here and say: I did this. It’s not ideal to write a column about an incredibly annoying trend in air travel and have to admit that you’re one of the culprits, but… I am. So here we go.

It’s a flight from Sydney to Nadi in Fiji, and my partner and I are deep in the weeds. Our youngest child is not quite two years old, so he’s allowed to fly essentially free, sitting on our laps. Still, have you ever tried to get an almost-two-year-old to sit still on your lap for four hours? It can’t happen. At least not for us.

And so while our four-year-old sits in his seat watching Bluey on an iPad with his headphones on and basically just living the dream, the almost-two guy is wriggling around, trying to walk down the aisles, trying to pull all of the stuff out of the seat pockets, trying to rummage around in the bags , trying to tear open all of the snacks.

So we do the only thing we can do. Wiggles, on the phone. Get it into his hands and hope it holds him for a few minutes. He won’t wear headphones but he will stare at a screen while Emma Wiggle does nursery rhymes, so it buys us a few moments of sanity.

Although, I’m aware that it might buy those around us a few moments of anger. It’s the no headphones thing. We turn the volume down as low as we can, at a setting that our kid will only just be able to hear and hopefully no one in front of behind us will be able to pick up. But who knows. Maybe we don’t get it right.

This is the trend. This is the annoyance. People listening to music or watching movies or TV shows on their phones or their iPads without any headphones.

You will know, instinctively, if you have been around someone doing this. And you will know, too, that it’s getting worse, that more people seem to be doing it, that somehow more people think it’s OK.

At least we tried to keep the volume down. I’ve sat next to people on planes who just blast the sound out like it’s Dolby surround in their home cinema. You can’t believe it at first, like they’ve just lit up a ciggie next to you. For real?

But anecdotally at least, I’ve seen this happening more and more. You thought people reclining their seats was bad? (It’s not by the way, they’re allowed to). You thought crowding the carousels was annoying? You thought people who get to the front of the security queue and all of a sudden realize they have to find and remove all of their liquids from their bags are a pain?

Well, how about your fellow passengers blasting out their entertainment with no headphones and no cares? That, to me, might just be the most obnoxious behavior of all.

Part of this is the airlines’ fault. Barely anyone offers seatback entertainment on domestic flights anymore. Even some of the aircraft for nominally full-service carriers such as Qantas will leave you high and dry on the movie and TV front (although some will offer to stream entertainment to your own device).

Travelers who may not have been in the air for a while, particularly after the enforced pandemic break, can easily forget that, and find themselves stuck in a small seat for several hours with nothing much to do. Hence, out come the phones, and on go the videos. Not everyone carries headphones. What choice do you have?

(Obviously, you have the choice of reading a book or a magazine or just staring into space and not annoying your fellow passengers, but not everyone makes that choice. We’re so used to being entertained now at all times, to being connected, to being supplied with something to do. Having nothing just doesn’t seem possible.)

That’s part of the issue: assumed services that just don’t exist anymore. The other part is that people just don’t seem to care that much. You would hope that watching entertainment without headphones is not becoming socially acceptable. But maybe it is?

I’ve seen this happen on buses and trains and it’s weird and annoying there, and those are short trips. I’ve seen it in airport departure lounges and found it a little bizarre. But sitting on a plane for a few hours, with strangers literally rubbing shoulders with you? No one wants to hear the sound effects from the one millionth Star Wars spin-off you just happen to have downloaded on your phone.

But of course, we have to acknowledge again that I have been one of the culprits. I would point you to the extenuating circumstances. Kids are really annoying. In playing the Wiggles at low volume with no headphones I’m hoping to lessen the annoyance for me and for all the other passengers around me, without releasing too many extra “toot-toot chugga-chuggas” into the atmosphere.

I would like to think I was successful. But maybe that’s what everyone thinks.

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​See also: I had a fight on a plane over reclining my seat – and I won

See also: My long-haul flight from hell with a toddler


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