Column: Beeping on airplane activates 'maroon’ alarm


SOMEWHERE OVER EUROPE — I have flown overseas enough to be fairly comfortable with transoceanic travel and quite competent at demonstrating impeccable passenger behavior.

I am cordial to the flyer beside me, respecting his personal space, even if I suspect him to be a shoe bomber — especially if he is a shoe bomber. I offer gum for the ascent and let the more squeamish ones squeeze my arm on the descent (I will even count rosary beads with them if needed).

When flight attendants perform preflight safety instructions, they receive my undivided attention. I hang onto every line of the whole nightmarish how-to-use-an-oxygen-mask demonstration, though I know if the masks do drop and dangle, I’ll grab as many as possible for my own use. It’s likely, though, the air marshal will horde the masks for himself, for he is the one with the gun, unless I can toss the shoe of the guy beside me at him — I might get lucky (note, though, this quick reaction would not be possible if sitting beside an underwear bomber).

My favorite oxygen mask safety demonstration occurred on a Southwest flight. The flight attendant shared the usual spiel about putting the mask on your own face before putting one on your child’s face, but then he added, “If you have more than one child” — here he paused to chuckle — “well … I don’t know, man, … go for the kid with the most potential.” There’s nothing like a little black humor before takeoff.

When instructed, I immediately turn off my BlackBerry — and leave it off. I don’t want a text from my daughter to be the cause for a downed 767.

It upsets me when others ignore the rules. During a Munich, Germany, to Poznan, Poland, flight, I sat in the rear row with my co-worker Julie. People say the back is the safest place. By safest, do they mean you die last in a crash? How comforting.

Halfway to Poznan, an unexplained beeping filled the fuselage, a sound way out of the ordinary from the typical airplane noise. It seemed to be coming from up near the plane’s wing section. It sounded like the countdown for a bomb. To my relief, the beeping stopped ... until it started again. Other passengers looked around. It stopped. It started again. “Well, for heaven’s sake,” Julie muttered. “Maybe that’s the alarm that goes off when we get too close to the mountains,” she added. Great, we are about to be Patsy Clined, I thought. I suspected it was more realistically a warning about impending wind shear or worse — Tired Wing Syndrome (TWS).

A flight attendant, bloodhoundlike, searched for the sound. I wondered why she didn’t at least alert the pilots, for you’d think a pilot might want to know if a wing was tired.

Word spread that it wasn’t an emergency warning after all but more likely someone’s cellphone alarm clock. The attendant stared down at me. I shrugged. She walked off. The sound returned. She returned, stared at me again. It was embarrassing. She reminded me of a friend’s house dog that keeps its nose on you even though there are other guests to sniff until you flick it on the nose a few times when no one’s looking. Since flicking a flight attendant’s nose might put me on the no-fly list, I told her, “It’s not me. I always turn my cellphone off.” Then I suggested, “I bet it’s that guy up there wearing the noise reduction headphones. He obviously doesn’t hear his phone.” She left to harass Mr. Bose.

The passengers grumbled, angry with the headphones guy. A Bugs Bunny line came to mind, “What a maroon. What an ignoramus.” I pictured us, a mob of coach section passengers, tossing headphones guy out the emergency exit. The beeping was that off-putting.

Fed up, Don, a high-ranking member of our company, sighed, unbuckled, stood, opened an overhead compartment and rummaged through its contents. Clearly, this was an admission of guilt by the big cheese himself. I felt bad for Don, who otherwise was a sophisticated world traveler, a real renaissance man. What a maroon, I thought. Don returned to his seat. The beeping returned. It wasn’t Don’s phone after all. I felt relieved for Don.

This series of beeps lasted for half an hour. Miffed passengers eyed one another in accusatory fashion. We landed. We taxied to our gate. The engines shut down. We shrugged over the unsolved mystery, the undetermined bozo responsible for this horrid flight, gathered our carry-ons and prepared to step into Poland. It was like a “CSI” episode without a conclusion.

As we moved down the aisle, the beeping occurred once more. With the engines off, the noise source — unfortunately — was easy to pinpoint. I pulled my BlackBerry — surprisingly still on — from my coat pocket. The snooze alarm had been activated the whole time. I didn’t feel the vibration through my coat. Talk about bad vibrations. Don noticed, looked at me like I was a maroon. I laughed, as if accidentally leaving a cellphone on was no big deal. Hey, it was an honest mistake. It could have happened to anyone.

Scott Saalman’s next Will Read (and sing) For Food show will be at 5 p.m. Sunday, May 19,  at the Riverwalk Gazebo in Jasper. The show, part of Old Jasper Days, will benefit Community Food Bank. After 25 shows, WRFF has raised $11,000 for various community causes.

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