The Real Reason Cell Phones are Banned on Planes

June 24, 2010 at 5:00 am 11 comments

I should start by saying that smartphones and simple cell phones are not banned on planes everywhere. Air France started allowing passengers to use their cell phones in 2008. Since then, a few Eastern airlines have followed suit.

These airlines use an in flight system that mimics cell phone towers found on the ground. The system relays the call/text/email to a satellite and back to the ground from there. Similar systems have been on cruise ships for years. On cruise ships, they use these systems because there aren’t any ground based cell phone towers in the middle of the ocean.

When you drive in a car, your cell phone call may jump from tower to tower as you travel out of range from one tower and into range of another. These jumps used to cause an echo with early cell phone networks, but it is pretty seamless today. Well, at least in your car it is. Airplanes move much more quickly and the network cannot pass your call from tower to tower at that speed. That’s why airplane systems typically bounce your call off a satellite, which it can easily maintain a connection to.

An unintended benefit of having the cellular connection on the plane is that the cell phone doesn’t require a lot of power to connect the call, so your battery will last longer and there will be less electromagnetic radiation in the plane. If you phone was attempting to connect to ground based towers it would have to amplify the signal much more and that consumes more battery power.

So, the technology exists. Why don’t most airlines allow it?

Firstly, there is the myth that cell phones cause interference with navigational equipment. Most people aren’t going to try to test it either, no phone call is important enough to take that risk. But, if you fly a lot then chances are good that you’ve realize mid-flight that you forgot to turn your phone off. It doesn’t appear that there have been any equipment problems. You seem to be flying in the right direction and you haven’t heard any complaints from the cockpit.

I asked an airline insider about this and they checked with some pilots and filled me in on the details. They said that old analog cell phones may have caused problems, but there is no evidence that digital phones cause any problems. Like I said before, Air France has been doing it for two years now without incident and there have been a number of studies that failed to find any incompatibilities between aircraft systems and cell phones. In fact, the problems are more likely with the ground based systems as they scramble to route your call to the nearest tower as you pass a new tower every few seconds in an airplane.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, many planes already have equipment to route in-flight cell phone calls without going to ground based towers (similar to what Air France uses to properly route cell phones through satellites). This equipment is often part of the system that planes use to offer in-flight wifi. Many US carriers currently offer that service and much of that equipment has cellular capability, it’s just not enabled right now.

If it was truly a problem with airplane systems, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) would surely support the ban of cell phones. Instead, the FAA blames the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for the in-flight cell phone ban.

The FCC regulates all electronics that are sold in the United States and they readily admit they’re cautious about changing the rules on this issue. Their main goal is to prevent electronics from interfering and causing problems with each other, especially with emergency and government systems. They say that limited information is available on the safety of using cell phones on airplanes.  They also note that consumers don’t want cell phones on planes.

They’re probably right about cell phone calls on the plane, although I’m not sure if that is their decision to make. I could see a war between airlines who adopt the technology and those who promote their flights as cell phone free.

The interesting thing about the technology is that the airlines can control which services the passengers can use. They can disable calls, but allow text messages and emails/data to be transferred. Disabling calls would maintain a flight environment similar to what we have now and that would ensure that screaming babies retain their exclusive right to prevent you from sleeping on red-eye flights.

As more airlines install the equipment for in-flight wifi, they’ll be itching to generate revenue from in-flight cell phone usage too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the airlines lobbying the FCC for the right to offer these services. When they do, sign me up for the deluxe service package: 1 piece of luggage, cellular usage, 1 meal, 1 life vest during an emergency  and 1 bathroom break — not necessarily in that order.

Thanks to Gina for suggesting this secret!

Related: Why Airlines Dim the Lights Before Night Landings

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick  |  June 24, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I always wondered about this.

    Reply
  • 2. dubai-photographer  |  June 25, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    i would actively seek cell phone free airlines, can imagine many situations where people would end up punching each other

    Reply
  • 3. tikipete  |  August 4, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Wow so interesting…cool…you wonder…you just wonder… !

    Reply
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  • 6. adaptorseventynine  |  August 5, 2010 at 4:00 am

    cool!!!now this could be useful ice breaker conversation…

    Reply
  • 7. swgeorge  |  August 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

    One of the great mysteries of life revealed!

    Reply
  • 8. Bill  |  August 19, 2010 at 1:23 am

    So….the little cell phones that transmit at 0.67 watts…can cause huge problems with the plane’s electronics and navigation system…however, the cell phone towers, which transmit at far higher power and on exactly the same frequencies…do not cause a problem. Right. That’s why there are no cell towers near airports and not near hospitals either.

    Reply
  • 9. Daniel  |  August 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I’m a private pilot license holder and I’ve seen my mobile phone interfere with the digital Horizontal Situation Indicator as well as cause that buzzing you hear when your mobile phone is left too close to the TV or your stereo speakers. That could be quite a problem when you’re talking to the tower! If the phone is near certain cables it could induce noise down sensitive cables if they haven’t been properly screened. So, I guess it depends on the aircraft.

    Reply
    • 10. Daniel  |  August 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      There’s an interesting (if rather technical document) from NASA research on this subject here:

      http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20030014805_2002155076.pdf

      Reply
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