Airlines, Attention Consumption and Noise-Canceling Headphones

On almost every flight, I’m reminded of how airlines do not try to avoid unnecessary consumption of passengers’ attention. Some of this is the fault of the FAA, which requires various announcements and disclosures. Other consumptions presumably are attributable to “failure to warn” tort doctrines. Yet other announcements are purely discretionary. Whatever the reason, in aggregate, I’m constantly frustrated with how often I am interrupted/disturbed by the flight attendants and pilots.

Consider, for example, the announcements at the beginning and end of a flight where the captain informs the flight attendants to prepare for takeoff and landing. If the communication is between the pilot and the flight attendants only, why is the announcement made to the entire airplane? If the airlines tried to conserve their passenger’s attention, they would find a way to allow the pilots to communicate just with the flight attendants and leave the passengers out of it.

Otherwise, many of the announcements are untargeted. A welcome to frequent flyers (don’t care). An invitation to join the frequent flyer program (already a member). The announcement about the movie starting/stopping (sometimes I care, other times I don’t). And, of course, the safety demonstrations that most of us simply ignore. There’s no way for me, as a passenger, to customize the information to my interests. All announcements are one-size-fits-all, and that means many of them are not relevant to me.

As a consequence, I find it very hard to nap on the plane. Now that I’m a parent, I do sometimes collapse out of exhaustion. Even when I do, though, the periodic stream of announcements keep any nap pretty short. But even when I try to work, especially on the computer, I find the announcements disruptive and unwanted.

I mention all of this because, on my last flight from San Jose to Chicago, I saw at least a half-dozen passengers using noise-canceling headphones. I tend to be a late adopter of technology (i.e., I still don’t own a cellphone), but I’ve already queued this up on my wish list. With these headphones, I wouldn’t care how many announcements the airline made; I could just tune them out and blissfully sleep/work away. I’m waiting for the price to come down, but I will definitely be getting a set.

Of course, the promulgation of noise-canceling headphones poses a problem for the airlines and the FAA. How will the necessary information be disseminated if everyone has checked out, technologically speaking? Will the airlines/FAA ban the use of noise-canceling headphones during some announcement phase? Will some form of “assumption of risk” develop? (i.e., if you miss the necessary disclosures because you’re using noise-canceling headphones, tough bunnies for you). Will the airlines use more invasive forms of disclosure and consent like the current charade of “I need to hear your verbal assent” for passengers in the exit rows?

To date, the FAA and airlines have felt no incentive to consider the attention consumption costs of their announcements and disclosures. They have had no real incentive to manage the consumption of passenger attention, so they have gotten gluttonous. Now, technology is striking back. Will a technological arms race between the FAA/airlines and passengers ensue?

UPDATE: Vic at the Conglomerate discusses his experiences with noise-canceling headphones.