The Real Reason Why Cell Phones Will Never Be Allowed on Planes

Lufthansa A380 Cabin

South African Airlines recently announced that they are seeking an exemption that would permit the use of cell phones during flights, before that it was Emirates and Singapore Airlines that began allowing limited cell phone use. But making calls while in flight still remains forbidden to most of the world’s travelers, and with good reason.

In the United States, two Federal agencies regulate the use of cell phones in flight, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FAA’s position is unequivocal and simply states that portable electronic devices cannot be used on civilian aircraft, with certain exceptions. The FCC is a little more specific in their prohibition by stating specifically that cell phones are not allowed to be used while an aircraft is in flight.

But why the unflinching language from the regulatory agencies?

The standard line from the airlines is that the interference from cell phones may affect the sensitive equipment used by pilots. There have been several studies conducted, none of which seem to be all that conclusive, but given the lives at stake, the Federal agencies have traditionally wanted to err on the side of caution.

So why are some airlines now allowing cell phone use?

I’m not an engineer and my knowledge of the airline industry doesn’t extend too far past knowing my zone number during boarding. But, it seems that we the passengers are the real reason behind the ban or lack of one involving cell phones.

For me, flying has always been a welcome respite from emails, phone calls and the general hustle and bustle of modern life. I really enjoy telling people that I’m about to board and can’t talk anymore. We as a society are hyper connected and it leads to more stress and unhealthy lifestyles. The one opportunity we have to log off and be honest about our inability to communicate is while on board a plane. I for one don’t want to give that up.

There’s also passenger cohesion to consider. If you think about it, flying is a very strange activity. Hundreds of strangers are packed into a relatively small space for hours, all enduring rapidly diminishing comfort and respect. In order to survive this experience with a modicum of dignity, we as passengers enter into a social contract with each other as soon as we board the plane. Whether we realize it or not, we promise not to be a jerk for the duration of the flight. Not everyone adheres to this golden rule of travel, but most do. Most people DO help little old ladies with their luggage and most ARE fairly courteous to their neighbors. Cell phones threaten this delicate balance.

Could you imagine 100 or more people on a flight each having conversations at various decibel levels? The result would be a constant buzz of conversation; a cacophony of awfulness. I would rather poke out my eyes than sit next to a business person talking about work for five hours. Or even worse, teens gossiping with their friends on a nonstop flight across the country. I don’t think I’m alone and I think that an already cranky flying public would be sent over the edge should cell phones be allowed during flight.

I know that some people feel like they’re the Most Important Person and the world will surely crumble into the sea and fire would rain down from the skies if they aren’t able to be reached by cell phone 24 hours a day. But you know what, that’s not the case. The people who are that important, like the President, have their own planes and can do whatever they want. No one else needs this level of connectivity.

By definition, technology grows at an exponential rate. As a civilization we have walked on the moon, explored the deepest depths of the oceans and made the creator of the Snuggie a gazillionaire. I have no doubt whatsoever that, if we so chose, we could find a way to allow people to use cell phones on airplanes. But we don’t want to.

I think that the vast majority of the flying public enjoys their hours of solitude, pretending that there is still a small level of civility inherent in modern travel. To take away one of the last vestiges of dignity from the travel experience is a colossal mistake that once done, can never be undone.

What do you think? Should the airlines allow cell phone use on board planes?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

44 thoughts on “The Real Reason Why Cell Phones Will Never Be Allowed on Planes”

  1. Airlines should stop saying that it has anything to do with electronics and just admit the real reason. I was once told it was so everyone could pay attention during takeoff and landing but if that was the case, magazines and sleeping shouldn’t be allowed either.

    1. Anthony Paoloili-i

      GSM and American smart phones recieve and transmit on the same frequencies used by the Surface Movement Radar (SMR) systems by every commercial airport I know of. In fact, SMR ground movement radars, is actually a requirement to become a commercial airport.

      Older phones, and GSM, sure do have the ability to work thru ground based telephone systems. Many private pilots use them during flight.

      The reason is simple, they are line of sight.
      IF you are in-flight, your higher angle to the cell tower, is free of ground clutter.

      1. Excuse me, but I find that to be false. Cell phone frequencies worldwide regardless of if it’s GSM or CDMA based all use 2.6 GHz or lesser bands while SMR uses the 9 GHz and 15 to 17 GHz bands.

    1. Then you must have great luck on trains or you’re one of the yakkers. I repeatedly have to tell people that this is not their living room and to take their personal calls another time. I shouldn’t have to listen to what kind of sandwich you had at Panera that day. I was once applauded on a bus when I told the girl next to me to get off her phone moments after she said, “Oh my God, we still have an hour before we get there. You have to stay on the phone with me.” You’re bored? Read. Don’t be rude to your fellow passengers who want peace and quiet.

  2. Maureen @ Vaco Vitae

    Cell phone use on planes? Just kill me now. Add it to the cacophony of crying babies and coughing passengers and I swear I’ll find a way to walk to Australia from the U.S.

    1. There’s large sections of the Pacific Ocean and the Australian continent where there is no cell phone coverage at all.

      So I think you might be safe for a while yet!

      1. Where I live in Australia, I only have to travel 5km to be out of range for the next 1000km or so. And it’s OK. It’s really, OK.

  3. I hope to God they never allow cell phone use on planes. I’d go insane if I had to listen to 100 people using their cell phones all at once. It’s annoying enough when, the minute the wheels hit the runway, everyone’s got to whip out their cell phones to announce to whoever is on the other end “I’ve arrived!” Like they couldn’t wait until they got into the airport terminal?

  4. I sure hope they do not ever allow cell phone usage on any flights, no matter how short! The last thing I want to hear is a lot of people all talking on the phone at the same time. When people are on their cells they become oblivious to everything else around them. Ugh. . .

  5. Your real reason is certainly the reason I hope they never allow cell phones on airplanes. If they ever do allow cell phones I propose they have a “no phone section” in the front of the plane and send the talkers to the back of the plane in the space formerly reserved for smokers.

    I sincerely hope Mike’s Road Trip is correct and that they can never overcome the technical impediments to cell phone usage in flight.

    I just wish there was a similar technical/public safety reason people could not use cell phones on trains, buses and other public conveyances.

    Jerome Shaw

  6. I would go absolutely bonkers if phones were allowed on planes. I sat next to a guy who was on his phone until the flight attendant made him get off upon take off, and the minute we landed he had his phone back out and was making calls. I would rather get kicked in the balls than have to listen to him drone on for the 3.5 hour flight I was on. It was bad enough listening to him for 20 minutes. Ugh. I get mad just thinking about this possibility.

  7. I’m with you I shudder at the thought of people on the Tube here in London or on planes being able to use their phones. That being said I suspect that it would cost more than your normal rates so that would keep some users from dialing.

    I’m curious if anyone has been on a plane with wifi, were you able to use skype?

    Will be interesting to see what the future brings.

  8. Years ago, when reception was in the dark ages, I was on an Amtrak train with a political reporter who was on the phone the entire trip. It was not pleasant. I am thrilled people can’t talk on phones in flight. The cacophony. The rest of us would have to retreat behind earphones. Personally, I’m not so happy about the Wi-Fi. Can’t people disconnect for a few hours and read, relax, sleep or listen to music. We are all too wired-in these days.

  9. I was once told that the real reason that phones are not allowed has more to do with the total chaos it would cause with signals bouncing off towers and proper billing/tracking of calls/texts. If they ever get it settled, I think the best compromise is this: All phones must be on silence the entire flight, and only texts are allowed.

  10. I agree with everyone else – no cell phones on planes! Ugh, how annoying that would be! We just got cell reception in the el here in Chicago a couple years ago and people are pretty good about not abusing it – most people, if they get calls, just say “hey, I’m on the el, let me call you back” but there are always some who carry on with the loudest, and often times personal, conversations that make me want to scream! I have heard far too much about some stranger’s lives than I care to know…

  11. My fellow passengers who are already too close for comfort should never ever be allowed to talk on their cell phones on a flight. I cannot even imagine how miserable I would be listening to the clash of noise from the too-loud-talker to my left, the chick with the high-pitched cackle-laugh to my right, and the 16-year-old repeating, “Oh my God!” to her BFF behind me.

  12. The title to this article is quite misleading. It suggests you know the real reason why cell phones will never be allowed on planes, and I suppose your answer is that we don’t really want them. Of course, a lot of people said the same thing about wifi, that people really didn’t need or want to be online during flights.

    Near the end of your article, you ask, “So why are some airlines now allowing cell phone use?” But nothing in the following paragraphs answers this question. It was still very interesting reading, as was the rest of what you wrote, but there is a huge disconnect between the questions you ask and the opinions you offer.

    The fact is, if cell phones were actually dangerous – even during takeoff and landing – airline staff would be much more diligent about making sure they were all turned off. I, for one, have forgotten to turn mine off more times than I’ve remembered.

    Someone in the tech industry said years ago that it was impossible for phone companies to keep track of their customers usage in the air, which made it impossible to charge accurately for calls made during flights. Supposedly, they lobbied air carriers to forbid cell phone use because of that. A previous commenter noted that it is also difficult to stay connected when flying so quickly between towers, but I believe they are simply jammed from the time the engines start until the time an aircraft lands. Otherwise, why would they work on the airlines which allow in-flight calls and not on the ones which forbid them?

    1. Actually, that was the point of the piece. That regardless of official safety precautions, the real reason is passenger sanity and cohesion.

  13. Totally agree with you on the annoying conversations! I don’t want to hear about the ‘market falling’ or girl gossip about who did what and with who – YAWN! It’s bad enough when you have the obligetory baby on the plane, never mind 300+ other people doing the same. No thank you!

  14. Please NO cell phones on airplanes. We all work too much and over-communicate as it is! I enjoy the sit back and relax for an hour, or whole day on planes. It’s a “time out” worth giving everyone. I also agree with you on the aspect that it would be horrible to be held captive next to someone who is constantly prattling on about the mundane or private matters. YUCK!

  15. Hi Matt,

    Whilst I agree and hope that the use of cell phones (or mobile phones as they are called in Australia) will NEVER be allowed on planes, I sincerely hope that airlines get over the ban on using MP3 players and -for crying out loud!- ebook readers until the seatbelt sign is turned off, and then when you’re starting to descend.

    I find this ban incomprehensible (although someone may be able to explain). In what way does using e-ink or listening to an MP3 file threaten the safety of an airplane?

    If there is a genuine safety reason, ok fine.

    But if it is just a knee-jerk, uninformed reaction that’s routinely applied to ‘all electronic devices’ (or they just want you to listen to the same old safety announcement you heard last week) then I don’t understand why someone isn’t complaining.

  16. I flew last year, they now have a rule that you cannot use ANY electronic device for the first 10 minutes of the flight, the seatbelt sign does not necessarily get turned off either. But I hear this is because of the last attempt to hijack the airlines.

    I agree that allowing cell phones would create chaos, trains and busses are different train cars are more compartmentalized so that really isn’t an issue with a few exceptions.

    I also like the idea someone said that they should only allow texts during flight, this makes more sense but we already have wifi so who needs texting?

    There are certain conversations I will not have while in public because… well why? Who wants to hear that crap, sheesh I remember the only time you COULD have a conversation was when you accessed a pay phone or a private landline!

    If cell phone usage were to be allowed on the airlines I’d use it make extremely brief calls whether to check on something or to remind someone, etc but otherwise I would try to make sure all my calls/private conversations are done beforehand or afterwards.

  17. I worked in the airline industry for a long time and I was also confused as to the restriction of cell phone use during taxing, take-off, and landing. I ask around and the answers I got made it much clearer.

    No, the technology probably won’t interfere with the communications of the pilots but think about this: we take off our shoes, cant carry liquids over a certain amount, and walk through metal detectors (and now full body scanners). It would be a lot easier to be on the PHONE with someone who is on the ground and didn’t have to go through the screenings and let them know EXACTLY what is happneing on the plane; our exact position, the amount of customers and employees on the plane and if there are any air marshall’s or LEO’s present. It is a SAFETY ISSUE! Anyone could reveal sensitive information that would give potential terrorists a leg up on the operation as it is happeneing! Not to meantion it would be a LOT easier to communicate to other members of your “team” scattered all over the plane to coordinate an attack on the cockpit or the passengers. Lastly, it is a way for the airline crew working the flight to detremine who will comply with simple instructions and who may be a threat to the cohesion of the flight. If someone refuses to turn off their phone before we leave the ground, do you really want to see what they may refuse to do once we are 35,000 feet in the air? Most of the rules made by the FCC and FAA are for a reason and based on very calculated studies.

  18. I think they should allow the use of cellphones but they can limit it to sms sending only and phones in silent mode to avoid disturbing the other passengers.

    1. That would be fine my me. It doesn’t matter to me how far they go AS LONG AS they don’t allow calls. As I wrote, it would drive me (and many others) absolutely nutty LOL

  19. I overheard someone last month talking about this, and that the real reason for no cell phones is nothing about safety, but more to do with the telecomm companies, and their inability to bill you properly for use when you are at 12,000ft. This guy was saying that whilst the signal will work, and you will be able to use your phone to chat to someone, the telecom will have difficulties charging you as your signal bounces from one tower to another to another, and won’t be able to keep up to charge you for the call….
    Surely just a random conspiracy theory…

  20. The reason IS to do with safety. Any half-decent college physics student can tell you this.

    The fuselage of an aeroplane forms what’s called a Faraday cage, protecting the plane from lightning strikes and the occupants from the increased radiation at higher altitudes.

    The thing with Faraday cages, though is that as well as keeping radiation out, they keep radiation in, including radio waves. The next time you board a plane, look underneath if you can. You will notice that all the radio antennae are outside the plane, as they simply wouldn’t work inside.

    When a cell/mobile phone can’t find a signal, it increases the power of its transceiver to try to find one. When inside a plane, the radio waves generated by the phone will bounce around until they are absorbed by something – like a seat, person or bit of equipment.

    In the cockpit of a plane, there are at least 7 radios (3 for positioning, 3 for communications and a transponder for identification). These radios can pick up the interference caused by phones, which in turn can cause problems. Make a call on your phone, hold it next to a speaker and you’ll hear this interference.

    Now as for airlines allowing phones, I’m not entirely sure how they’re getting round this. At a guess they’re using some kind of low-power pico cell (like what’s seen in subway/metro stations), with the antenna outside.

    I do prefer the peace and quiet that comes with a lack of phones, though!

  21. At the speed and altitude of planes, it would be near-imposible to establish a reliable data link to the phones, the hand-off system would also fail. As others have pointed out, the plane will also attenuate the signal to/from the cell. These will cause a phone to operate at near maximum power. While one phone won’t be such a problem, imagine hundreds of phones operating at once, the electrical noise will become significant.
    To allow a cell phone to be used in a plane, the plane must have a cell-phone repeater, This would only be achievable if the plane acts as a provider, with each phone roaming. This would also require the installation and maintenance of yet more electronic equipment, which will need to be paid for. Who will pay that cost? the airline is unlikely to do it, so it falls to the telco, who will recover it in terms of more expensive calls, messages, and data. It would likely be a commercial failure, and hence no one does it.

    The directive to switch off phones probably began with the Analogue, ‘Brick’ phones, which emitted significantly more power than todays phones.

    The directive to switch off other electronic devices *is* due to the possibility of ‘harmful interference’ being caused by such. While the probability is low, it is still a risk with a large number of [potentially non-complient] unknown devices. The idea of turning them off during take-off is so that they can be switched on at a controlled time when the plane is relatively safe (ie. cruising altitude).

  22. Technology must be very different and advance now.
    But when I was airline staff about 10 years ago I can hear pilot and tower communication when I press “call button” in my cell phone, at that time I standup about 30m from aircraft that about to park. I didn’t try to know whether they can heard me or not but I switch my cell phone immediately. Maybe this what they mean with frequency interfering.

  23. i got one doubt…if it is risky to allow mobiles on airplanes then how is it that we are allowed to use pocket internet like data cards and stuff in flight.

    They both use sim cards so their operation range must be closedly linked then why is their a ban in mobile phones.

    PS: Do tell if we are not allowed to use pocket internet in flights as well

    1. You are not allowed to use internet in flight unless it’s through the system the airlines promote, GoGo. Phones may not transmit in any way.

      1. i cant understand the part ” Phones cannot transmit it anyway ”

        can you clear it for me..

  24. I don’t fly that often. But, if I were on an airplane, I wouldn’t want every person around me talking on their phones. It is one thing if it is for something brief, but not for most of or the entire flight. It is sad that people have gotten so dependent on cell phones and other technology. If people are on their cell phones or laptops, etc. while on a plane, the probably won’t have time to acknowledge anyone who is around them. If using cell phones on a plane is about compromising various safety measures, then people should respect it. I would think that if anyone is talking on their phone when on a plane, the people around them (including staff) can’t help but hear most of the conversation and fill in the blanks.

  25. I would imagine even if you could get a signal while in-flight, reception would be spotty at best. Can you imagine several hours of hearing, “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW!” from dozens of people around you?

  26. Turning off cell phones probably started when the phones had much more power with the old analog singles. Now, with the advent of the smart phones and digital signals, these phones operate on 1/10 the signal power or less and really don’t interfer with the aircraft or the ground based radio systems. It is a policy that should be reviewed, unless there is another deep dark reason for this.

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