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Cash for Quiet? What an Airline April Fools’ Joke Can Teach Us All

Apr 1, 2013

The late comedian George Carlin often argued that anything could be funny. All jokes are mostly true retellings of events or observations. The humor comes with exaggeration. “Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion,” he said. That contrast helps establish how “valid” the rest of the joke’s commentary actually is.

If that logic holds true, then WestJet’s April Fools’ joke struck the perfect note. A video featuring Richard Bartrem, the Canadian low cost carrier’s vice president of communications, offers a new airline perk: “Furry Family” – where all animals of cabin-safe size are welcome aboard (assuming they can use the lavatory).

“Today we’re announcing the easing of restrictions on pets in the cabin,” Bartrem says with a straight face. “We recognize that a growing number of our guests want to travel with their extended family and we’re proud to be the first airline to offer this type of service.”

And where will the two and four-legged creatures sit, crouch or hide? (Hint: not in their carriers)

Pretty much anywhere else, including the seat next to you, in storage bins or scurrying under your feet.

Laugh, laugh, ha, ha, ha. But the joke’s underlying truth is particularly telling. Our frenetic world has become a very loud and crazy place and it’s humor that WestJet has stoked before. Last year’s April Fools’ gag by the airline featured “child-free” cabins in a program called “Kargo Kids.”

But the world’s “decibel debacle” – whether it’s the sounds of screaming children, squawking chickens in coach or incessant cell phone banter – is no laughing matter. In New Delhi, for instance, one of the world’s loudest cities, noise levels top 100 decibels in commercial zones. That’s 10-15 decibels above what’s considered safe. And in case you think this is a new problem, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1955 discusses New York City as the world’s noisiest with decibel levels also around 100.

We’re left with a world screaming for quiet. And noisy children, turbines and fictitious flying menageries aside, the aircraft cabin is one of our last quasi-quiet refuges — unless, that is, the Federal Communications Commission gets its way.

Over the last few months, the agency has been pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration to relax its restrictions on in-flight electronic devices. (So what makes cell phone use any safer now versus in the past is another story)

By late this year we might all be sitting next to children and adults who lack the self control to unplug for a few precious hours and keep their phones and their mouths shut.

WestJet may not have a “Kargo Kids,” or “Furry Family,” program yet, but I can envision legacy and LCC carriers using electronic device rule changes to their advantage, segmenting strictly-enforced “cabin quiet” zones as part of ancillary revenue strategy. Instead of selling headphones for $4, why not offer $8 noise-cancelling ear buds? Think about it; that’s a small price to pay for a few hours of silence.

Unlike April Fools’ videos, this is no joke. In fact, it is very much in airlines’ interests to promote policies that talk out of both sides of their mouths – encourage in-flight device usage, popularize Wi-Fi, videoconferencing and shopping while offering pricy rewards remedies to the resulting “volume crisis.”

This sounds a lot like Big Tobacco. Yes, smoking causes “serious diseases and is addictive,” according to the Philip Morris website, but they continue selling cigarettes while also supporting smoking cessation efforts – a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right.

Airlines might not face the same ethical conundrum. But saving our eardrums and damaging them at the same time so that the air cabin really does sound like a zoo – even without an animal free-for-all, isn’t the best policy either. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for in-flight productivity. I get some of my most creative work done in the cabin. I just hope FAA and FCC wrangling doesn’t become more of a shouting match than it already is – on the ground, or above the clouds.

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