The ever-changing and improving technology of cellphones keeps us connected to family and work while we are traveling. Long flights offer us some down time to get work done, so keeping our smartphones up and running can be helpful. Yet, without fail, the announcement comes at the beginning of each flight that we must turn off all electronic devices, including phones, or switch them into airplane mode. Is this just a ploy to get passengers to use expensive in-flight phone service when available, or do we really need to turn our phones off during a flight?
The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. Whether or not you can use your phone on a commercial flight depends on the airline with which you are flying and your departure country. Below we include specific laws in the U.S. that relate to cellphone use on flights, the dangers of phone use on flights, and how things might change in the future.
U.S. Laws Against Cellphone Use on an Airplane
Two government agencies control the legality of cell phone use on an airplane — the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It might seem odd, but the FCC actually governs cell phone use in the air up to a certain altitude, and the FAA governs cellphone use on the ground. The FCC's ban on cellphone use in the air has to do with avoiding issues with cell phone towers. The law clearly states:
"Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off."
This law has been controversial, causing some groups to pressure the FCC to lift the ban. After consideration, the FCC did not have enough information to conclude the in-flight use of cellphones and other wireless devices wouldn't cause harmful interference with wireless networks on the ground.
The FAA laws about cellphone use on the ground and in the air aren't quite as strict as they may seem. In fact, the law transfers authority to the airline and the pilot in command (PIC) of the aircraft, the legal word for captain. The law states that an operator or pilot in command can allow the operation of a device that they know will not cause interference with navigation or communication systems on the aircraft. In specific reference to airlines, referred to as air carriers in FAA language, the operator of the aircraft has the discretion to allow or prohibit devices.
Why Is Cell Phone Use on an Airplane Potentially Dangerous?
Cellphone use has never caused a plane crash, but the laws barring use exist because of the worry of interference with networks on the ground and navigation devices while flying. When an aircraft is traveling above 10,000 feet in the sky, a cellphone signal will bounce from tower to tower, sending out a stronger signal and potentially congesting networks on the ground.
Airplane manufacturers such as Boeing have dedicated ample time and resources to studying in-flight cellphone use. Boeing engineers claim your phone doesn't have to jam a pilot's radio or distort instruments to cause a catastrophe. Yet, the interference causes more work for pilots during takeoff and landing, the most critical phases of flight.
Why Doesn't a Wi-Fi Connection on a Flight Pose Risk?
Depending on the airline and your flight route, you might have had access to Wi-Fi on your flight, which might make you wonder why you couldn't use your cell phone. These connections depend on satellites, not cell phone towers, so they don't pose any potential danger of interference. Airlines that offer Wi-Fi give you the chance to surf the internet, check your email and social media, and chat via messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Theoretically you can also make Wi-Fi calls, although most U.S.-based airlines will not allow it, because it requires more bandwidth.
Future Cell Phone Use During Air Travel
Even though FAA and FCC laws are in place for protection and aviation engineers are aware of the risks of cell phone use during flight, many of these risks are fading away. In fact, the European equivalent of the FAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), declared that electronic devices don't pose a safety risk in 2014. The EASA, however, has left the choice to allow phone use to the airlines, many of which have chosen to allow voice communications via cellphone during flight as long as they are made through onboard cellular companies such as On Air and Aeromobile, who serve more than 30 airlines around the world.
The FCC understands that modern electronics used in the newest airplanes remain protected from interruptions, but they haven't been clear on when or if they will lift their electronic device ban as a result. Even if airlines allow cellphone use on a global scale, it's likely some carriers will always ban voice calls, except in the case of an emergency. Listening to the phone conversations of others is an annoyance for many passengers, which can be worse than the person sitting in front of you reclining their seat into your lap. The FCC continues to collect consumer data and perform technical research while considering new rules that give airlines the choice to allow cellphone use if they upgrade their airplanes and outfit them with special equipment. If the FCC changes their laws, they will leave the ultimate decision to the airline about in-flight cellular service.