The Real Reasons You Can't Use Cell Phones on Airplanes

Updated on November 6, 2018

After spending years and years requiring passengers to completely power down all electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) have finally decided that you can keep electronics on the entire time you're on an airplane. The catch is that you can only do that as long as your phone (and any other devices that connect to a wireless carrier like Verizon or AT&T) is kept in Airplane Mode, which is a state where your phone doesn't send or receive any kind of wireless signals.

For a long time, there were a lot of questions about whether the requirement to turn your devices off was really ever necessary in the first place. People have heard urban legends for years about how cell phones can interfere with a plane's navigation systems or even cause it to crash, but given the fact that there are exactly zero reports of any planes, anywhere in the world, crashing because of someone using a cell phone, it's understandable for people to be skeptical.

But when the FAA changed their tune on the restrictions, the urban myths came back to life and made people wonder if it's even the real reason electronics were restriced in the first place. What's the real story behind why those rules were kept in place for so long, and why do they continue to require you to keep your phone in Airplane Mode?

Well, that's a kind of complicated question to answer, because not only did the FAA ban cell phone usage, but so did the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). They did so for completely different reasons, but let's start with the FAA.

Why The FAA Banned Cell Phones On Planes

The short answer is yes, the FAA did ban cell phone usage, make you turn off your portable electronics, and continue to require you to keep your phones in Airplane Mode because of a fear that those devices could create a potentially dangerous situation by interfering with an airplane's navigation system.

The FAA based this decision on a number of studies that have linked anomalies like the plane's GPS displaying inaccurate information, the plane's system clock showing the wrong time, and landing gear abruptly lowering on its own to signals emanating from cell phones, laptops, and other wireless devices.

That's all well and good, but while all these studies have obviously been influential enough to keep us from even using non-wireless devices like portable DVD players or video games during takeoffs and landings, they only refer to incidents where they *think* cell phones caused problems with a plane's equipment.

"Last thing I remember, I was posting a selfie to Instagram. Next thing I knew..."
"Last thing I remember, I was posting a selfie to Instagram. Next thing I knew..."

These incidents are primarily based on circumstantial evidence, and while some of the studies have shown that cell phones, laptops, and tablet computers do have substantially more transmitting power than you would think, there has never been anything that ever produced a smoking gun that conclusively proved that cell phones were the cause of any equipment failure on a plane.

Combine that with the fact that there has also never been any news report in history about a plane that was brought down by a cell phone or any other personal electronic device, despite how many people either forget to turn them off or flat out ignore the rule, and you can see why people find the "cell phones can crash a plane" story a bit hard to swallow. Besides, if cell phones were really that dangerous, wouldn't we have heard something about terrorists trying to use them to cause havoc?

Many people understandably find it hard to believe that cell phones really pose that much danger to vehicles as robust as commercial airplanes. Remember, these are vehicles that can fly through all manner of weather and turbulence, and are no doubt bombarded with much stronger signals than a cell phone can muster many times over during the course of a single flight, yet never once has a plane gone down because of issues with personal electronics that had been brought on board.

Probably due to this complete lack of evidence to support that theory, the FAA has decided that passengers are now allowed to use them for the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. As I said, they still require you to keep the phone in Airplane Mode for the duration of the flight, but that's really because of FCC regulations they don't have jurisdiction over.

Why The FCC Banned Cell Phones On Planes

So what's the FCC's problem with cell phones on airplanes? Well, it mainly has to do with the ways cell phones traveling at airplane speeds can wreak havoc on cell phone networks on the ground. It's nothing necessarily life threatening, but their reasoning is 100% valid and, as the agency in charge of regulating all communications in the United States, something they are duty-bound to act on.

Cell phone networks are designed to allow you to roam from one cell phone tower to another as you move around, but since the speed at which you're able to travel on land is more or less limited by how fast you're allowed to drive, the wireless carriers place cell towers at appropriate distances from each other to make sure their network has time to react to you roaming from one tower's coverage area to another's.

Because you're not likely to move beyond a certain speed, the carriers don't have to worry about you roaming from one tower to another faster than their network can handle. But that's on land, and when you're 35,000 feet in the air and moving at hundreds of miles per hour, you open cell phone networks up to a whole bunch of problems they weren't designed to contend with.

For one, the speed at which you're moving is many times faster than you'd legally (or physically) be able to move on land, so a cell phone looking for a signal from a plane will move from one tower to another so fast that the network will perceive it as the same cell phone trying to connect from multiple towers at the same time.

What, you think it's odd for a cell phone to be in 57 ZIP codes at the same time?
What, you think it's odd for a cell phone to be in 57 ZIP codes at the same time?

Aside from the risk of flooding the network with more traffic than it can handle and crashing it, cell phone networks won't allow the same device to connect to it more than once and don't react well when they try. Security measures on cell phone networks can interpret what appears to be the same device connecting from multiple locations as somebody spoofing (or pretending to be) a real cell phone to gain unauthorized access to the carrier's network.

The way cell phone networks typically handle a situation like that is to disable the cell phone entirely and wait for the legitimate user to come to them and sort it out. That's a pain for the real owner of the phone, but it beats them potentially having to deal with problems resulting from somebody impersonating them while doing something illegal on their cell phone network.

It's a smart way to protect the network and the legitimate customer, but the number of towers your phone would talk to while on a plane could inadvertently trigger a false positive even though there's no actual security threat. So even if the network isn't crashed by millions of cell phones on airplanes, there's a pretty good chance that your phone would actually get locked out of the carrier's network almost immediately by trying to connect to it from too many locations.

The problem is compounded by the fact that cell phone towers are also placed with the expectation that users on the ground will have a limited line of sight that would prevent them from being able to communicate with more than a few towers at one time.

Everything from trees to buildings to hills can block your signal from traveling further than your cell phone network expects it to, and even if you're in the middle of an open plain with nothing blocking your view for miles around (and your cell phone can somehow send signals way further than it's legally allowed to), the actual curvature of the Earth will block you from being able to transmit far enough away to mess with a cell phone provider's network.

However, when you're thousands of feet in the air, suddenly your line of sight is a heck of a lot wider than it is from an elevation of five feet, and that means that you have a clear line of communication with many more towers than you're supposed to be able to see.

Of course, some areas are more conducive to line-of-sight than others.
Of course, some areas are more conducive to line-of-sight than others.

Remember what I said about how networks react to seeing the same cell phone trying to connect from too many towers? So now you take all those towers you'll be zipping past at your higher rate of speed, multiply that by the substantially larger area your cell phone can "see" from the plane, and you begin to understand why letting people keep their cell phones on and connected on planes could become a real problem.

However, as the name implies, this is the problem Airplane Mode is designed to solve. The FAA and FCC both love Airplane Mode because it allows you to use the phone, and even connect to in-flight WiFi (if the airline provides it) without activating the phone's ability to connect to its cell phone network.

This is a pretty good solution in principle, but the various cell phone manufacturers are a bit inconsistent about whether their version of Airplane Mode only disable the actual cell phone connection (meaning your 4G connection), or will disable anything that sends or receives wireless transmissions, including WiFi and Bluetooth.

As far as some manufacturers are concerned, Airplane Mode was designed to follow the letter of the (United States) law and not allow you any kind of wireless connectivity while on airplanes. Others do disable everything when Airplane Mode is activated, but leave you the ability to re-enable them while still technically remaining in Airplane Mode.

Also, if you dig down into the network settings menus, most cell phones actually allow you to manually turn off the 4G connection, which is really what the FAA and FCC are looking for. If you do that manually, you can continue to use WiFi and Bluetooth and put yourself in the approved configuration even if the phone won't officially call it Airplane Mode.

Enforcement of the Airplane Mode rules won't be terribly easy since the FAA has ruled that it's up to the airlines, and specifically the flight attendants, to police passengers and make sure they're complying. I'm sure they'll still get a lot of people who still try and slip by unnoticed, but at least the looser rules will save those who play by them a good 45 minutes of crossword puzzles and in-flight brochures.

Do you think cell phones should be banned on airplanes?

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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        gordon onyango 

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