Can You Use Your Phone on a Plane?

Turning off your cell phone at take-off was always one of the first few announcements you’d hear from the flight crew a decade ago, but today, the advisory is less frequent.

Some flights now either don’t talk about mobile phones or don’t require you to turn off your electronic device, so what’s the truth?

You can use your phone on an airplane if you turn off cellular services by turning on airplane mode and only use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Leaving your cell phone on full function may interfere with the airplane’s radio communication. 

However, with modern airplanes and cell phones, the risk of such interference happening is minimal. 

Why Airlines Limit Phone Use?

Frequent flyers know that almost all air travel companies allow cell phone use with limitations. But one airline may have more restrictions than another. 

Switching to airplane mode or flight mode is a federal requirement on domestic flights across the US. So, you’re legally required to disable wireless transmission functions like data and voice and only use in-flight Wi-Fi connections. 

Below are the main reasons why cell phones usage can be dangerous on an airplane. 

Disruptions to the Telecommunications Network

Your phone has to connect to a nearby cell tower for you to make or receive mobile phone calls. 

Your phone will switch across multiple cell towers as you move around. The movement between the towers takes a bit of work, even though you don’t notice.

However, these switches should only happen a few times at altitudes near the ground and at moderate speeds. So, using cellular functions on a plane goes against the intended design.

Thus, if thousands of plane passengers each day all retain cellular functions from the sky and try to use them, it’ll break the telecoms network.

Risk of Interference With Airplane Equipment

If you kept your cellular functions on while tens of thousands of feet above the ground, your plane won’t fall from the sky. However, your airline will insist on passengers switching to airplane mode because there’s always a risk of interference with critical airplane equipment.

Many modern cell phones no longer pose this risk, but old 2G phones constantly interfered with electronic systems. The notorious buzz they generate could get picked up by sensitive navigation systems.

Some researchers have backed up the need to turn off these devices by demonstrating how personal electronic devices can interfere with a plane’s communication systems. 

Devices emitting signals in the 800-900 MHz range are especially known to interfere with unshielded cockpit instrumentation.

Newer aircraft have solutions to deal with the high number of phones and other electronic devices passengers bring aboard. Engineers are also keeping up with advancements in mobile communications to study how they affect airplanes.

However, it’s very challenging to test each device and model to work out how it might interfere with systems on each aircraft. So, airplane manufacturers use a combination of advanced avionics and usage restrictions to keep everyone safe.

Using a Phone on a Plane

You can use your phone and other portable electronic devices while in airplane mode for all functions that don’t require the use of a cellular network. For example, some passengers watch movies, play games, and use Facebook Messenger.

Airplane mode turns off cellular, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, but you can then turn on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to use the in-flight Wi-Fi for your own device. Most airlines will have no problem with your telephone usage if the cellular connections are inactive.  

However, in-flight calling is where US flights are in total agreement. Passengers should not make cellular calls either via cellular or VoIP networks. International flights have to turn off the voice communication function when entering US airspace.  

The Future of Cell Use in Planes

Airlines of European Union countries started allowing in-flight cellular service, including texting, data, and voice calls.

The planes in the region can support such phone use because they have a mobile base station and network control unit (Picocells), which prevents communication with land-based networks. They also use a satellite connected to terrestrial phone networks.

The technology is already in use in business aviation across the US, but commercial flights are yet to adopt it. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration have tried to enact new legislation that would allow airlines the freedom to permit cellular service if they have the right equipment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of congress, airline crew, and passengers frowned upon the proposal leading to the shelving of talks around the topic. 

I mean, do you really want dozens of people talking on the phone around you on an 8-hour flight? 

Final Thoughts

Overall, you can use your cell phone on an airplane, but you can’t make voice calls. Turning off your cellular connection using airplane mode or flight mode also reduces the already slim chances of equipment interference.

As always, on your next flight, pay attention to airline rules and be considerate of other passengers.

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