Will my cellular phone work on a plane as well as it does on the ground?

All legal issues aside, how useable is my cellular while I’m in the air flying? Will I get good connection quality and reception?

Two words for you: Flight 93

I was hoping for some real information, perhaps a link that explains that it does, the principles involved, etc.

Your cell phone will work but it’s not a good idea to do so.

There is an extremely small chance that your phone may interfere with some of the plane’s navigation systems. This is the reason you usually get when asked why you can’t use a phone in flight but in actuality the odds of causing a problem this way is pretty remote.

Of more concern is the effect on the cellular network. A cell phone is constantly announcing its location to the cell towers in the area. This is so the system will know where your phone is and so be able to route an incoming call to the right cell to get to you.

When you are in a plane, your phone is “visible” to a lot of cell towers and you are moving from cell to cell at a fairly rapid pace. This could cause problems with the system. The main problem you would experience would be that you would probably have your connection dropped a lot since the system would have trouble keeping up with you as you moved. Also, if a lot of people were using cell phones in planes then the system could get loaded enough (since each phone is now connecting to so many towers) that a lot more “no service” messages would start coming up.

A lot of this has been discussed before, I’ll try to dig up the relevent cites…

Four words:

Google: cell phone airplane


Thanks for the link. If everyone used google, there would be no need for General Questions. :wink:


You need a cell tower to recive your signal, and the towers are designed to maximize coverage on the ground, not the air. So the antennas are pointed mostly downward. You’d suck up a lot of unneccesary power if you radiated signal straight up all the time that was rarely used.

Also, planes are moving way too fast to stay in one cell for any length of time. the handover overhead between cells would be prohibitive. That and the signal processing algortithms are optimized for normal ground speeds. (say, 120mph maximum, for some margin.)

the calls from flight 93 had to be from the in-flight satelite phones that are installed on most large commercial jets.

No, gonzoron, cell phones work on airplanes.

OK, boys, be nice. Both gonzoron and Neurotik are correct. Some kinds of cell towers broadcast upward and some don’t.

Well, Neurotik is more right than gonzoron. They do work in airplanes, in certain situations, and the calls made on flight 93 were on cell phones, not on the airplane “satellite phones.”

Interesting story (albeit poorly written). But the case for blaming equipment failure on receipt of an SMS message plus a call is circumstantial. A story goes that there was a guy who turned on a light switch on the Titanic and that exact moment there was a huge crash. He survived the sinking but never got over the guilt of causing it. :wink:

The last I read on this topic was that the prohibition is a precaution, but I have never heard of any technical tests where cell phone usage was shown to interfere with navigational equipment. Second, even if phones on board the plane are turned off, the air is awash with EMR from the cell towers anyway, as well as tons of other sources.

Just to clarify, my “No” was directed at the OP, because tanstaafl’s reply wasn’t there when I posted.

I should have specified that my comments on Flight 93 were a WAG, based on my knowledge of cell tower design. I couldn’t find any confirmation in a brief web search. If you’ve got a cite that they used regular cellphones, let me know, and I’ll recant.

I will rephrase: If the basestation network is well-designed, there would be much less signal radiated upward than downward. When we design basestations (which is what I do for a living, BTW) we do not design them with inflight use in mind. If they happen to work, it would be partially due to non-optimal network design, and it would be the sort of out-of-spec use that wouldn’t have been tested, and would likely fail often for the sort of network issues that tanstaafl indicated.

And in any case, it probably won’t be possible much longer, as the upcoming systems do more to steer the signal directly at the user to minimize excess power.

So, perhaps I was too strident in my response, and I apologize, but to answer the OP, IF they do work, it will certainly not work as well as on the ground.

OK, I found my own cite:


Yup, they apparently used cellphones, so I was wrong on that point. I’m very surprised the cellphones worked, but there you have it, they did.

Probably a very poor signal, and a lot of dropped calls, though, for the reasons I mentioned before.

But it’s still a bad idea to use them. Lawyers have proved that they cause brain cancer.

Lawyers cause brain cancer?

A huge problem I see with the FCC ban on airborne cell phones [47 CFR 22.925] is that it applies to all aircraft. It isn’t just 747s that are affected; legally, I can’t use a cell phone on an a Cessna 172 that’s traveling a couple thousand feet up at 110 knots in clear weather, or even as a passenger in a hot air balloon. Those situations certainly seem to be within the design limiations of the cellular networks. The FAA, which is responsible for establishing flight standards, doesn’t have any safety issues with cell phones. Why should the FCC care?

Yes, cellphones do work in airplanes. Even airplanes that are aloft.

A lot of pilots (myself included) carry ordinary cellphones, for two principal reasons. First of all, if you get stranded somewhere you might want to call someone either to let them know where you are, or to come get you. The other reason has to do with flying on an instrument flight plan, but it’s a little complicated so I’ll pass on that now.

As a result, it does happen from time to time that one is aloft in an airplane and the tinny sounds of a cellphone ring suddenly are heard in the cockpit, leading to red faces and a quick stab at the power button. Yes, we are supposed to turn them off, but we are human. I don’t know about 30,000 feet, but they work just fine at 3,000.

There have been several instances of pilots experiencing total radio failure calling air traffic control on a cellphone to advise them of the problem. Which is another good reason to have one handy. If it is an emergency situation such use is, in fact, legal.

As for the FCC vs. the FAA… the FCC regulates radio communications, including those involving airplanes. Radios and cellphones are NOT required for flight in general (although some specific types of flying require it), but you can’t have a radio without the FCC being involved on some level and it doesn’t matter if the radio is on a Boeing 777 or a radio control model in your backyard. It is the FCC that assigns the communication and navigation frequencies for aircraft, for instance.

The ban on cellphones is primarially due to issues with the cellphones and towers, but there was some concern early on that they MIGHT interfere with airplane instrumentation. This would more likely be a concern with small airplanes, where the cellphone would be in closer proximity to the avionics, than on big airplanes, but the FAA is conservative in many ways. The prevailing thought was to ban them until it was proven they would NOT interfere, rather than assume they wouldn’t and perhaps find out the hard way they would.

A lady was arrested (IIRC she was african) who refused to turn off her cell phone after the attendents instructed her to. Her cell phone caused interference between the airplane’s comm system and the tower, nowhere near as fatal as interfering with the control system of the plane, but with all the other planes flying around it wasn’t insignificant either.

engineer_comp_geek, do you remember where you read that?

I read it on yahoo news. It was prior to 9/11, but I think no more than maybe 2 years ago. I think the woman was from Africa and the plane was landing somewhere in southern Europe. That’s all the details I remember.

report here

I could not find the story that engineer_comp_geek mentioned, but there is this

No indication that there was any interference with the avionics, but evidence of pig-headed refusal to cooperate.