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I'm flying with American Airlines on a cross-country flight soon and was thinking about bringing along my airband receiver/scanner since it'd be fun to listen to ATC.

It looks like I'd be unable to use it during the flight since any type of radio isn't allowed. I don't see any TSA restrictions on them. Am I safe in assuming that I can bring it along and listen to it in the airport terminal without any trouble with security?

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    $\begingroup$ It's probably easier to head over to LiveATC and bring up the relevant feed for your area. $\endgroup$ – Greg Hewgill Oct 5 '14 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ I have brought a scanner along on many trips by plane. I've never had any trouble getting through security or using it in the terminal. $\endgroup$ – fooot Oct 6 '14 at 16:28
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This is probably more a travel question than an aviation one, but I did some Googling of various aviation and travel sites and the consensus seems to be this:

  • You can carry the scanner with you, but if you're unlucky and encounter the wrong TSA agent on the wrong day then you may be asked a lot of questions at security (the TSA's "Can I Bring..." tool seems to consider scanners to be generic electronic items)
  • Using the scanner while sitting in the airport is fine, but if you attract attention to yourself then you may be questioned by the police or airport security
  • You may not use a two-way radio on board the aircraft, because they're specifically required to be off at all times (this is in every airline's safety instructions that I've seen); that shouldn't apply to a radio that only receives but the cabin crew might ask you to turn it off anyway if they're not sure about it
  • Even if you did operate the scanner in the air, the reception is terrible and you'll probably hear only the aircraft's crew, not ATC

Note that this information is for the USA only, many other countries are very strict about possession and use of scanners or two-way radios and in the UK (for example) just listening to ATC is actually illegal.

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    $\begingroup$ Scanners are definitely NOT 2 way radios, they're strictly receive only. I've never been questioned by anyone using one at an airport, but I can imagine in the post-911 climate some rentacops might get pushy. You can get ATC in the air, no problem. Of course you're going to have shorter reception range than the equipment in the aircraft so you might not hear them until some time after the aircraft started talking to them. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 6 '14 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Yes, good point, although 3 out of the 4 points I mentioned still apply to a pure receiver. But I'll edit my answer to make that clearer. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 6 '14 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Most airlines I have flown have restrictions on radio receivers during all phases of flight. eg. united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/baggage/devices.aspx I see some now appear to permit AM/FM receivers specifically. $\endgroup$ – BowlOfRed Oct 6 '14 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ Get a scanner that includes the FM broadcast band (88-108 MHz). If anyone questions you just tune to a FM broadcast station. $\endgroup$ – Steve Kuo Oct 7 '14 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab I know from personal experience that KLM and BA explicitly state that "all equipment with an antenna needs to be switched off completely or be put in airplane mode", iow the circuits powering the antenna must be disabled. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 21 '17 at 5:36
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In the US, it's perfectly legal to bring an airband receiver or scanner through security and on to an airplane. There are restrictions on using radios (even if receive only) onboard an aircraft. Furthermore, you are required by the FAA to comply all pilot and flight attendant instructions (and they usually say turnoff all radios).

There is however a possible loophole by using a crystal radio. There's no rule against taking one onboard an airplane, and since there's no battery, it's impossible to turn off. Do a search for "airband crystal radio" for possible receivers and designs.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting.... I found instructions for making one here (but it requires a 9V battery), but Wikipedia confirms batteries aren't required. Not sure if reception would be good enough inside the aircraft though, and it seems like such a hand-made device could attract some unwanted attention from the TSA. $\endgroup$ – Jeff B Oct 7 '14 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Jeff: You could put it in a more normal looking enclosure than the black cylindrical "pipe-bomb" enclosure shown in those instructions. Good-looking two-part plastic rectangular cases are inexpensive and readily available. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Apr 20 '15 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ The only special restriction regarding the use of a radio on an aircraft in the U.S. is that the FCC bans the use of cellular radios in flight. All other types of radios are allowed, provided that they're otherwise operated according to FCC regulations and aren't prohibited by the airline or crew. Also, just because a crystal radio doesn't need a battery doesn't mean you can't turn it off. Opening the right part of the circuit (whether by switch or disconnection of the wires) will indeed turn it off. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 21 '17 at 7:31
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I've been an avid shortwave listener since the 1950's, a ham radio operator since 1965, and I later retired as a USAF pilot. Ever since the 60's when most everything went solid state and handheld radios (both scanners and two way) started to have VHF aviation frequency, and later, UHF frequency (military aviation freqs) capability, I have always traveled with a handheld radio while flying on either commercial airlines or military hops worldwide. In several decades of doing this I have never, ever had any issues with either security (TSA, etc.), flight crews, or customs personnel, even with radios capable of transmitting on aviation frequencies. But, just in case, I always carry copies of my credentials with me (both my ham and FAA), which are valid worldwide. In addition, while on board I don't "advertise" my activities, placing my handheld in either my pocket or the seat magazine storage pocket and use a headset (with no microphone!). Quite often, when either changing frequencies or using the LOC/ILS to monitor an approach someone seated near me will be curious and ask me a question and I will answer their question in great detail and let them listen in or watch if they want to. This serves to alleviate any concerns that they may have while also helping them better understand Ham Radio, shortwave listening, and other technical aspects of flying and the evolution of radios and the frequency spectrum at the same time. But hey, the secret is to just act normal, be cordial, and always do whatever a flight crew member may ask of you, if requested. For between $150-350 some of the more modern handheld radios made by Icom, Vertex, or Sporties Flight Shop will provide you with hours of entertainment on board and help generate new friends at the same time. Enjoy!

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  • $\begingroup$ It is illegal to use a radio receiver in flight, check the safety card. As a Ham, you should know why: receivers all tend to use the same 10.7 MHz and 455 kHz IF. Finite shielding and limited isolation of mixers means a portion of each LO and IF will leak out the antenna and be received by the aircraft radios. This will then beat with the desired LO and signals and cause degradation of performance. $\endgroup$ – user71659 May 12 '18 at 17:59
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A passive crystal set with good front-end bandpass filter (Chebyshev 10-pole with 3 dB points at 118 and 136 MHz), a sensitive Schottky detector and hi-z phones or 32 ohm buds with audio matching xfmr, the headphone cord serving also as antenna (trim cord to 1/4 wave resonant length mid-band, coupling/decoupling via caps & RF chokes) and you're in business.

Use a metal case for a counterpoise (w/body capacitance coupling); insulate the headphone cord shield from case.

No batteries, no tuning, no on-off switch, no volume control, no interference potential. It's never "on", power supply-wise, so nothing to turn off.

This is the best way to hear all in-band activity without tuning around, missing brief transmissions in the process--think of it as a scanner that gets everything at once. Segregation is by volume; e.g. closer transmissions are louder, so your pilot will be vs. ATC.

For ultimate 'stealth', build it into a tiny, innocuous-looking case like from a gutted mp3 player (if questioned why it doesn't work, say "needs charging"), keep it in your pocket, and use only one earphone--cut the other one off. Keep that one on the side of your body facing away from the aisle for less visibility (window seats rule!) That way you can also still hear flight crew instructions, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi, Alfredo. We're not a discussion board so I edited out your response to another comment and your off-topic psychology claims. I'm still not entirely convinced that this really answers the question, though. I guess you're claiming that a device of the kind that you describe would be legal to use during the flight. Note that, at the moment, you might not be allowed on the plane with an electronic device that's "not working", though that's more likely for larger devices such as laptops and tablets. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 29 '18 at 15:23
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The problem is... if you are asked/told to turn it off, whether it's an airband radio or a passive device then you HAVE to turn it off. Cabin crew don't want you listening to the pilot's radio traffic particularly if any kind of emergency arises or flight detour. Think about it!

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    $\begingroup$ Can you provide a source to support the assertion that a significant number of cabin crews would disapprove of you listening to radio traffic? Or are you assuming they don't because you wouldn't want that? $\endgroup$ – blueben May 11 '15 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is... if you are asked/told to turn it off, whether it's an airband radio or a passive device then you HAVE to turn it off. So, exactly how do you turn off a radio that is impossible to turn off? $\endgroup$ – ozsffan Aug 21 '17 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ bonkers. Sure, you HAVE to turn it off if told so by the crew. But there's no "most don't want you listening in". $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 21 '17 at 5:38

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