The Sky's The Limit!

August 29, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- The rate of absorption of clever but awful technologies into our economy and culture is difficult to measure on a long time scale. But clearly the pace has quickened with the relentless advance of electronic wizardry in combination with easy profits and a helpless public whose preferences are ignored.

The interactive telephone -- push one if you want this. . . .push nine if you want that -- is surely responsible for some measure of psychic disequilibrium in the population.

We are not yet at the point where 911 robotically responds with: "Push seven if a homicidal maniac is breaking down the door and you believe you are endangered." Given the payroll savings produced by these telephone systems, can that be far off?

So, let it be noted that now coming along is an embryonic scheme that should and can be stopped before it starts -- airborne gambling. For those who can't endure a gambling gap while traveling, science, engineering and business management have teamed up to provide relief.

Using small, high-quality screens and keyboards at each seat, and credit-card transactions, gambling aloft promises the look and sound of familiar casino-based electronic wagering.

And the hard-pressed airline industry, sniffing an annual gambling gross estimated at $1 million per aircraft, is eager to sign on, according to Aviation Week magazine.

An executive of one of the big companies in the field, Sky Games of California, was quoted as saying that all the major airlines have expressed strong interest.

To which he added a doleful commentary on airline economics and values, noting that the carriers have a "captive passenger."

Getting the ticket holder from one place to another may have been made money for the airlines in bygone days.

But today, according to the gaming executive, "the airline's ability to entertain that passenger is where the profit is." It's like popcorn and soda as big profit-makers in the movie-house business, he pointed out.

However enthusiastic the airlines may be, there's a problem to be overcome. Federal legislation would be required to take gambling aloft in the United States, which is why the debut, scheduled for early next year, will take place on overseas routes flown by foreign airlines.

But with easy money as the prod, a strong push for the necessary legislation is as inevitable as a soggy airline sandwich.

High-altitude gambling raises the specter of dreadful scenarios that should inspire a raging opposition before the first gambling console gets off the ground.

Are aircraft cabins now to ring with the shrieks of victory that resound through casino halls when a gambler makes a big hit? Or the soulful, desperate or obscene utterances that accompany bad luck? Will noisy crowds cluster around the seat of a player on a hot streak? Will big losers in the early stages of a long flight sink into depression and do something stupid or dangerous?

And then there's the matter of small children who may inadvertently be seated alongside a zestful gambler. Many parents would consider that experience inappropriate for youngsters. How would the airlines deal with that sensitive matter?

Legalized gambling has become an irresistible tide across the American landscape, with casinos sprouting in cities and on waterfronts as local and state governments scramble for revenues.

Across most of the nation, the once-potent moral factor no longer counts when gambling revenues beckon. Gambling is here to stay, like it or not.

But air travel is miserable enough without adding casino culture to cattle car seating. The airlines might explore peacefulness as a selling point.

Along the way, they might recall that the best entertainment they can provide is a punctual journey in a seat compatible with the human body.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.

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