Why Can’t You Use Your Phone on a Plane?


The reason the FCC doesn’t allow you to use your phone to make calls on an airplane has nothing to do with flight safety. The FCC prohibits the use of cell phones while the aircraft is in flight if any radio signals emitted could interfere with the aircraft’s systems.

Phones cannot be used on planes because they can disrupt the aircraft’s electrical system. Phones use electricity, and electricity generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field can interfere with the current moving within the plane if it is strong enough. So phone use is suppressed to avoid disruption.

Why Can’t You Use Your Phone on a...
Why Can’t You Use Your Phone on a Plane?

Portable electronic devices, including cell phones, emit radio signals that officials fear could interfere with onboard communications or flight controls, navigation and other onboard electronics. Under no circumstances should portable radios, cell phones and other similar devices be used during the flight.

You can use your cell phone, laptop and other electronic devices on board until you have permission from the crew, but phone calls are not allowed during the flight. This means that one airline may allow in-flight calling on all or some of the flight, while another airline may prohibit the use of the phone for the entire flight or during takeoff. Using an open phone to connect to a cellular network while in the air is actually banned from not one, but two different U.S. government agencies.

The FAA on Cell Phone Use

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has long banned the use of cell phones and other devices to connect to cellular networks because, according to it, the electronic devices can interfere with aircraft navigation and communication systems.

The current FAA regulations banning the use of cell phones on aircraft were enacted over 20 years ago to protect terrestrial cell phone networks from radio interference. The FCC banned in-flight wireless use of most cell phones and wireless devices in 1991, citing terrestrial network interference.

Bans are designed to protect the wireless cellular infrastructure. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which originally enacted the ban in the early 1990s, radio frequencies emitted by cell phones and other electronic devices can interfere with cell tower networks on the ground.

To prevent cell phone disruption due to exposure to fast moving cell phones at altitude (see technical discussion below), the FCC has a current policy of using cell phones on all aircraft in flight. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates cell phones, banned air passengers from making in-flight calls in 1991 for fear that the signals could interfere with terrestrial communications networks.

The Ban Is Relaxed Sometimes

In 2013, the FAA eased the ban slightly, allowing the use of mobile devices in airplane mode, which disables the ability of phones to transmit radio signals to cell towers, provided that airlines can demonstrate that this will not interfere with the electronic aircraft. . The Federal Aviation Administration announced that in 2013 the use of cell phones is allowed on aircraft as long as they are in airplane mode.

In 2013, after consulting with pilots, passengers, aircraft manufacturers and mobile technology representatives, the Federal Aviation Administration officially ruled that passengers can leave their phones on during flights if they are in flight mode. The use of portable electronic devices in aircraft is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, but each airline has the right to establish its own rules for using a telephone in airplane mode on its aircraft.

One of the reasons airlines don’t allow cellular devices on flights is because cellular devices interfere with on-board radios and instruments, but that’s not the only reason. Pilot communication systems are the most common cause of phone malfunctions when used in aircraft.

When the wireless connections of mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets are activated, they can interfere with the aircraft’s communication systems via radio waves. The fear of interference stems from the fact that gadgets use radio waves to connect to the Internet or mobile phone networks. Electromagnetic interference to aircraft systems is a common argument for banning cell phones (and other passenger electronic devices) on board. Using the phone could interfere with the operation of vital aircraft systems, which is a significant risk.

Some Electromagnetic Spectrum Blocks Are Safe

The FCC has divided the electromagnetic spectrum into different blocks for different purposes, so a phone call should not interfere with bands reserved for air communications or GPS navigation systems. Since it is the phone signal that interferes with both cell towers and aircraft, you can use the Airplane Mode setting, which disables only this signal, leaving the others on.

Airplane mode cuts off your phone’s phone signal due to the impact Airplane mode has on cell towers and aircraft equipment, but mostly because it’s unlikely to threaten anyone if left out. This means passengers can play games, read e-books, listen to podcasts, take photos and more while flying through the sky while the device’s cellular connection is not in use.

There’s a reason flight attendants are asking you to activate Airplane Mode immediately, even if passengers aren’t going to use their phones. The bans mean that as long as the phone is in flight mode and therefore not sending a signal, there is no law prohibiting use on an aircraft and most airlines allow it. Interference has been an excuse for denial when people ask if they can use a phone on an airplane.

One place where federal regulations forbid you from using a phone—more specifically, its ability to connect to a telephone company’s cellular network for voice and data—is on an American airliner.

Phones are supposed to radiate only on their own frequency channel, but energy can leak into others, such as those used by aircraft to communicate with air traffic controllers or for navigation.

Gene Botkin

Gene is a graduate student in cybersecurity and AI at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Ongoing philosophy and theology student.

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