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What problems do cell phones cause? How is using a cell phone in the air different than using it from the ground?

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This question covers cellular data, but the answers apply equally to cell phones. –  Lnafziger Mar 3 at 0:49
Great question! –  Rob Mar 3 at 7:53
...and sadly, one of the few remaining places where it's possible to be surrounded by strangers not yacking into their phones seems to be heading for extinction. –  Simon Mar 4 at 22:50
@Simon Dude! we are living in the 2010's! This is the decade of txting! Actually, I find the lack of people yacking and the increase of people texting, often in the same room, even at the same table disturbing. –  flyingfisch Mar 5 at 1:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Why aren't cell phones allowed?/ What problems to cell phones cause?

Most of these cases apparently originate from a series of unexplained events in the 90s which were believe to be caused by electronic gadgets, hence the ban. This was when cell phones appeared, and there was an aggressive ban as a result. NASA has a list which includes some of these and makes for an interesting read.

Now however an increasing list of airlines is allowing them again, depending on jurisdiction. FAA is working on allowing it from a regulatory standpoint. Bear in mind that phones were probably much more powerful back when these rules were introduced.

Mythbuster (episode 6, 2006) did a test on this by sticking in a powerful transmitter into a business jet. Their website gives a slightly different version: It was the FCC, not the FAA, who led the way for this regulation:

Explanation: Never mind what the chatterbox in the seat next to you says about cell phones messing with plane navigation — those metallic birds are built airtight against foreign signals and operate on entirely different frequencies than cell phones.

So why all the fuss about phones? When you make a call at 10,000 feet, the signal bounces off multiple available cell towers, rather than one at a time. That means too many phone-happy jetsetters might clog up the networks on the ground, which is why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — not the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — banned cell use on planes.

How is using a cell phone in the air different than using it from the ground?

Is it sensible to allow them on aircraft? To quote one of the above sources:

although the FAA recommends that you still switch to airplane mode because you’re not going to get a signal 30,000 feet in the air — the only hit you’ll take is a dead battery when you land.

So it's probably not a huge loss if you're flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 meters. In any case, you can't expect a service like you do on the ground, unless like Lnafziger says that the aircraft is equipped with a cellular basestation called a Picocell, illustrated below:


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Is it against FAA regulations to use a cell phone while in the air? –  flyingfisch Mar 3 at 0:28
@flyingfisch wired.com/autopia/2013/10/faa-ban-lifted –  MikeFoxtrot Mar 3 at 0:35
Note that where it is allowed, They are using special equipment on board the aircraft (picocells) in order to solve the issues that you mention here. They don't just suddenly allow the use where they didn't before for no reason. –  Lnafziger Mar 3 at 0:53
@Lnafziger ah, thanks for clarifying. :) –  flyingfisch Mar 3 at 1:30
The ban on cell phones has nothing whatsoever to do with potential interference with the aircraft, at least not in the U.S. The former ban on use of any personal electronic device during critical flight phases (taxi, takeoff, and landing) was due to that reason, but that ban has been lifted. To answer flyingfisch's question, no, it is not against FAA regulations to use a cell phone while in the air. It is, however, against FCC regulations due to interference with the cell network, not the aircraft, as the quote in this answer from the Mythbusters website correctly points out. –  reirab May 15 at 20:33

Apart from Manfred's answer, there are other factors in play:

  • Airlines make quite a nice income from the payphones in aircraft
  • Cellphone towers typically have pretty bad (if any) reception straight up, they're designed for ground level use after all which dictates the design of their antennae (an omnidirectional one is a lot less energy efficient)
  • People in border regions already complain about being hit by roaming charges when they set their phones to automatically switch networks. In an aircraft that'd be multiplied as those foreign towers might be in range from further inside a nation's borders (but see previous point as to why maybe not).
  • keeping a quiet cabin. As hinted, 150+ passengers all yacking away on their cellphones (and most people tend to shout into the darn things) make one hell of a racket. Bad marketing for the airline. Everyone wants every other passenger to be quiet and behave but want for themselves the right to do whatever they want, other passengers be darned.
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if we use a cellphone in an aeroplane it might disturb connection between the controlroom and plane and also between radar. which will be dangerous that it makes unable to connect the control room for an emergency.

i think this is the reason that cellphones are not allowed to use in planes

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no, that's the stated reason. But it's hard to believe that the systems are that sensitive as it'd mean a terrorist could bring down an airliner by putting a working cellphone in his bag, put it in the overhead bin, and have someone call him while in the air... –  jwenting Mar 12 at 13:45

Arguments strictly from an aviation safety perspective can be found in this comprehensive article on SKYbrary.

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Hallo Timo, welcome at Aviation.SE. Please include the main arguments in your answer. The purpose of this site is to provide quality answers, it should not be directory of links. Good answer included references and as such it's a great idea to link to Skybrary. (I know you are the maintainer, and I think it's a great site) –  DeltaLima Mar 14 at 15:55

I am not myself a pilot, but I have a number of friends that pilot small private aircraft and use cellphones while in flight. At altitudes of 10 or 12 thousand feet and speeds of 150 kph they work just fine.

People say they might 'interfere' with the aircraft. But if the electronics in aircraft are really so susceptible to interference, why are you allowed to use cell phones in the airport?

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