It seems that airline operational staff on the ground have the ability to initiate verbal communication with airline pilots on at least some airliners, in flight.

Obviously pilots can communicate with ATC using, for example, VHF radio.

Perhaps, even in aircraft where phone service is not available to passengers, pilots in the air and/or airline staff on the ground can

  • initiate a voice call using telephony equipment that is separate from any PSTN (public switched telephone network)?
    • using existing headset?
    • using aircraft internal intercom handsets?
    • some means of selecting the call recipient?
  • send text messages over the data links (e.g. via ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) through VHF (very high frequency) or SATCOM (satellite communication))?
  • use private VHF frequencies to communicate with airline operations?

If any of this is true, how does this work from the perspective of a pilot, steward or an airline operational staff member on the ground?

  • $\begingroup$ I've made an edit to generalise and simplify the main question (and remove the subsidiary questions). If you feel the edit is too drastic and would like your original question to get longer exposure in the hope of an answer, please do click the "edited" link and then "rollback". I'd suggest that if you do so, at least move the subsidiary questions into a separate question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Mobile phones are actually not allowed on aircraft because they wouldn't work well and would exhaust battery rather quickly if left on, so they are not an option. Satellite phones should work though. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 6:13
  • $\begingroup$ @RedGrittyBrick Thanks, looks better now (and I didn't know the right terminology). $\endgroup$
    – mwil.me
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ Here's at least part of the answer: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/1897/… $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 17:55

1 Answer 1


There are numerous methods for air-to-ground communications. I may be missing a few, but off the top of my head, here are the ones I can remember:

  • normal VHF comms
    Operational staff at the airport maintain an operations frequency that you can use just as you would would ATC. The limiting factor here is the requirement of line-of-sight with the ground antenna and this limits range. We could normally raise ops about 30-40 minutes out, at altitude, if someone was actually listening. This is similar to a GA pilot calling unicom to arrange ground services. This method is also used for maintenance at some stations and for talking to fuelers and deicing operators.

    This is a selective calling protocol that operates over HF and VHF frequencies. Each participating airplane and ground station (typically a dispatcher or ATC) has a code and if you know the code you want to communicate with, you can establish two-way communications with them. To use this in the air required tuning a specific frequency and using a hand-mic with a keypad to dial the ground station code. On the ground I'm not sure the exact method they use (phone patch?) but when they called us we'd get an aural "SELCAL" announced by the airplane along with a light to alert us.

  • AIRINC phone patch
    This service provides VHF-to-PSTN patches and allows you to call your dispatchers actual phone, medlink, or anyone with a phone you feel like calling. This worked by calling an operator over the normal radios and having them dial a number and connecting us together.

  • Satellite phone
    Works just like any other satellite phone and use the Iridium network.

    This works just like text messaging. Select your recipient, type a message and hit send. You get alerts when messages arrive. The interface I'm familiar with in the airplane is a program in the FMS with limited pre-set recipients you could contact (dispatch and perhaps a few others). The ACARS software can also be setup to send specific messages to specific stations, e.g. an "In-Range" message which is routed to operations at your destination. From the ground side, this is usually baked into the dispatch flight-following software. Our dispatchers could right click on an airplane, get a menu, pick "text message" and type a message that would be sent to that airplane.

  • $\begingroup$ Re satellite phone: So airline staff in the US can use any normal land-line or cell-phone and just dial 011-8816XXXXXXXX. where XXXXXXXXX is a number associated with one of their airline's aircraft? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 11:03

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