Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I’m Not Stupid, and I Don’t Want Your Headphones

Earlier this year, I started to notice that United had placed a warning on all of their headphones which they provide in the seatback pockets in the economy cabin. The warnings stated clearly:


Upon seeing this warning, I was filled with a sudden urge to remove the headphones from the aircraft. I've never had a desire to take these headphones before, but the fact that United so blatantly didn't want me to do it made it much more attractive. I didn't need or want the headphones, but I was interested to find out more about whether or not some technology was actually being employed to disable the headphones or if the warning was just so much white ink on black plastic.

I'll admit that I'm not the most skilled person when it comes to electronics, but in my mind, I figured that the technology required to disable the headphones once removed from the plane would be cost prohibitive and/or impossible to pull off. That left me with the notion that this was just a passive way to try to curtail headphone theft.

I will admit that United provides some of the better airplane headphones out there. The one problem that I have with them is that they don't appear to be cleaned between users. Please let me know if I'm wrong on that point, but if I don't see evidence of something being "cleaned for my protection" I'll assume that it isn't.

Sanitation aside, I was left with the burning question of technology vs. snake oil. Surely this topic required additional investigation.

While I'm not an electrical engineer, I happen to know someone who is, so I brought the topic up with a coworker of mine. He let me know that there are some relatively simple methods which could be employed to effectively limit the headphones to airplane use. One method, which he briefly mentioned, was to add some sort of electronic device to the headphones that would require a stronger than normal audio signal to get through to the speakers. With that done, you'd have to increase the capabilities of the sound system to match the headphones, but once that was done the headphones would effectively be useless once removed from the plane.

This technique seemed unlikely as retrofits to the sound systems of a fleet of airplanes would be costly. Additionally, you'd have to be careful that the sound system wouldn't blow out the headphones that passengers brought from home. We concluded the conversation by determining that a device that disabled the headphones upon leaving the aircraft was impractical.

My coworker also left me with a simple test that I could perform that didn't require me to “borrow “ a pair of headphones. While on the plane, all I would have to do would be to plug in a pair of the provided headphones into a portable sound output device. If I couldn't hear my audio feed, the technology was in use, otherwise a liberal application of BS was likely.

As I write this, from my airplane seat, I’m listening to the exotic sounds of Arthur Lyman on my laptop with a pair of the "PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE" headphones. So, in conclusion, there’s no magical device that disables the headphones like a grocery cart removed from a parking lot.

With that said, there’s no reason to remove these headphones to begin with, they don’t belong to you. Additionally, please don't take the toilet seats, coffee pots or the shoes of the flight attendants. As far as I know, the Skymall catalog and inflight magazine are still fare game.

A simple reminder not to remove the headphones would have sufficed, but don’t patronize me and invent some phantom technology; expecting me to swallow it. I’m not stupid and I don’t want your headphones.

I have contacted United on this matter and I have yet to hear from them. If I'm completely mistaken on this topic or my test is flawed, please let me know so that I can clarify the details of this post.

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