FCC Upholds In-Flight Cellphone Ban

Cellphones will stay banned from use during air travel, the FCC confirmed in an order released late Tuesday.

The FCC said there was “insufficient technical information” on if cellphones would muck up ground networks, but might “reconsider this issue in the future if appropriate technical data is available for our review.”

Seems more like the flood of letters from travelers not wanting to be stuck next to a noisebox should’ve been the reason. Cause, you know, why should cellphones be jamming networks on the ground from the air anymore than they do when you’re using them normally? — BEN POPKEN

in Flight Phone Ban [AP]
(Photo: akeg)


Edit Your Comment

  1. LintMan says:


    Seems like “interference” is a lame reason, but I’ll take it.

  2. ConsumerDave says:

    Because when you’re “normally” using your phone, you’re not going 400 MPH per hour. At that rate of speed, you’re moving from an area covered by a certain tower to another one quite rapidly, and the constant change in which tower your phone is talking to presents all kinds of problems for the network.

  3. Lewis says:

    I really miss Airfone. It was expensive enough to keep people from talking during the whole flight. But it was invaluable on transcon business trips to advise clients (and car services) of delays, ETAs, etc.

    Of course, the same could be accomplished with data-only Internet access, which it sounds like is in the works anyhow.

  4. mopar_man says:

    I fly rarely but I hope this keeps up for a long time. I hate people shouting into a cellphone even when I’m in public. I can’t imagine sitting next to someone on a plane for hours on end. They would probably end up with the phone lodged in their throat.

  5. Matthew says:

    I wish people would object so strenuously to the TV sets in the gate area.

  6. Lewis says:

    @mopar_man: The problem is, unlike Amtrak and its quiet cars, there are no walls to separate a potential “quiet” section, at least not on today’s aircraft.

    I imagine it would be just a matter of building and gaining approval for a “phone booth”, but they probably don’t want people queueing up in the aisles for their turn to use it.

    And you KNOW people would scream into their phones over the engine roar.

  7. John Stracke says:

    Cause, you know, why should cellphones be jamming networks on the ground from the air anymore than they do when you’re using them normally?

    Because, when you’re using them normally, you’re not going 600 miles per hour. Cell networks aren’t prepared to hand off from cell to cell that quickly.

    I love this part, though:

    The FCC said there was “insufficient technical information” on if cellphones would muck up ground networks, but might “reconsider this issue in the future if appropriate technical data is available for our review.”

    How is data going to become available if it’s illegal to do the experiment?

  8. tedyc03 says:

    Also, when you’re 6 miles in the air, you command a lot more cell towers than you do if you’re on the ground. That’s the reason always cited to me by professional pilots.

  9. gnappulicious says:

    yeah, thank gawd cell phones are still prohibited. i think if they were allowed, we’d see an increase in our anger-management (or lack of?) vocabulary with the phrase “air rage”, that being people who go postal on airplanes after being subject to annoying twits yapping away on their phones.

  10. Tallanvor says:

    @LewisNYC: The largest planes do divide coach into a couple of sections just to break it up, but I think that’s meant to be more psychological than anything.

  11. youngatheart says:

    whew !don’t we have enuf between ,public buses, trains,elevators,stores,restaurants,indoor and outdoor venues and crowded streets. I enjoy my cell for both business and personal BUT not other conversations (usually shouting)

  12. Athenor says:

    To be honest, I’m sure some tests have been conducted. All the major carriers probably have private jets, and considering the FCC and FAA want this data on hand, they more likely than not tested it out.

    Radio waves go out in a sphere, and the higher your antenna, the larger of a radius you can broadcast to (especially considering how the curvature of the earth works). A cell phone has the capacity to put out quite a bit of power, so it is probably very true that it could connect with a great deal of towers at once, and move its signal quite fast.

    If the companies were smart, they’d install cell phone network meshes into planes, so the planes act as transcievers/repeaters. It would count as roaming, and would funnel the cell calls onto a singular channel, which then could be controlled and treated much like air phones do. Just set the phone into “plane” mode so it only generates a really low power radio signal.

  13. tschepsit says:

    Tests have been conducted – phone calls get made on most every flight despite the ban, and there is occasionally equipment present on the plane to detect this (for data-gathering purposes, not for enforcement purposes).

    The earlier commenters were correct – having a call or calls at 600mph a couple miles above a network designed to offer service on the ground at

  14. Smitros says:

    I’m with LintMan, there’s way I’m looking this gift horse in the mouth.

  15. Smitros says:

    “No way” I’m looking this gift horse in the mouth.

    Mea culpa.

  16. Chese says:

    Even if the FCC had allowed the use of cell phones on airplanes, the FAA or each individual airline could ban them. Now if only the FCC had power over screaming babies.

  17. brattpowered says:

    That woman looks a bit like Ren (of “Ren and Stimpy” fame.)

  18. brooklynbs says:

    One of the rare wise decisions made by the FCC in recent years. For whatever reason, a large minority of people lose all semblance of common sense when they get within about three miles of an airport. The situation only gets worse once they get on the plane. I don’t mind regulating stupidity here.

  19. JohnMc says:

    Or InFlight Air rates drop?….

  20. JohnMc says:

    Let me tell you, my daughter lives on a cell phone. If it’s 6pm she might as well have a surgical implant. Me being the ignorant male, I just don’t know how anyone can talk that much. I use commute time and flight time to prepare for where ever I am going. I am productive but not talking. Color me wrong…

  21. elf6c says:

    Given the rather consumer-indifferent approach of the current formulation of the FCC leadership, what the general public wants or desires is unlikely to have been a major factor.

    Rather, with the “for pay” version of in-flight WiFi from AirCell having to compete with the “free” cell and data services the passengers already had, this may have thrown a spanner in the works for the data service monopoly the Airlines must have promised (and charged) AirCell for. Hence, most of the lobbying against this from the effected businesses.

    I would suggest that this as has as much to do with passenger revenue extraction as passenger happiness.

  22. Tremblor says:

    The Guys at 2600 magazine (and radio show) have discussed cell phones on airplanes at length. Basically the earlier comments are correct about the ground-based Cell system not built to deal with its client traveling between two points so quickly.

    Also: When a cell phone is searching for a tower it will start at low power and work its way up. When you’re in a low signal area you’ll often get “GSM” noise on speakers. This noise comes from the phone using a lot of power (and EM radiation) to try to sync with the network. On a plane you’re phone will have to put out a ton of power to connect, and this will interfere with pilot audio equipment, if not the systems themselves. As has been suggested the airline put a cell node on board the phone could use its lowest power possible and avoid most of those problems. But then they couldn’t charge you $5/min to call the babysitter

  23. Mark 2000 says:

    I think 9/11 pretty much proves you can use cells on a fast plane and not screw the equipment up. If this was truly a problem they would make you keep your phone in the belly of the plane, lest terrorist use several of them to make a plane crash.

  24. adamondi says:

    @Mark 2000: This has nothing to do with the equipment on the plane. Cell phones cannot affect any of the instruments on a plane. This is about the equipment on the ground that actually allows a cell phone to communicate with the rest of the world. The cell phone towers may not have a huge problem dealing with just a few handsets moving at hundreds of miles an hour, but if there were millions of them trying to do this all at once, the towers would not be able to cope. The system would go wonky.

  25. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    If you’re moving at 500 MPH, the handoff would be so fast that the phone and network wouldn’t be able to process the data fast enough. I would guess that there would be some pretty big issues with lost calls and dropped packets, because the phone does take a finite amount of time to connect and negotiate with a site, and then the voice packets have to be shipped out to the rest of the network.

    In addition, cell sites on major air routes would suddenly become clogged with traffic. System engineers have to take into account the expected loading of a site and necessary bandwidth. A rural site that was only designed for a certain number of calls would become inoperable if say..100 call suddenly appeared out of nowhere at 500 MPH.

    I’m guessing the cell carriers probably swamped the FCC with letters and lawyers too, because it would really raise hell with the network and ruin it for people on the ground as well. Since the majority of subscribers aren’t in a plane, I’m sure they’d rather please 99% of users at the expense of the 1% of users hurtling across the sky in big aluminum cans.

    Regardless of the technical issues, I’m just relieved that on my next flight, crying babies and creepy people sitting beside me will still be the dominant issues that I’ll have to worry about.

  26. Yozzie says:

    @brattpowered: You sick little monkey…

  27. xounkownxo says:

    Recently I was on a flight back from Missouri when I noticed a pilot deadheading across from me had his cell phone out and was texting/checking his voice mail for most of the flight. From then on, I never bothered to turn my phone off in-flight for any reason.

  28. s35flyer says:

    I do not want to listen to people talking on a cell phone in an airplane. Thank goodness its still banned. Its bad enough in a restaurant

  29. Nygdan says:

    Hmm, any possibility of movie theatres using airline equipment, and having to ban cell phone use there too?

    I mean, seriously, is it really necessary to text message someone that you’re at the movies?

  30. MacGyverS2000 says:

    There is also another technical issue that has yet to be mentioned… beamforming.

    Cell towers spew most of their energy towards the ground in the surrounding few miles around the tower, for obvious reasons (that’s where the people are). The antennas are able to electrically alter their patterns to aim more energy towards a caller on the move (and lower energy in an area where no cell user exists). This is done dynamically and can be envisioned as a number of higher-energy “spikes” following each person (or group of people) using their phones. A number of callers in the same vicinity can share the increased energy of one of these spikes.

    If the tower is required to aim a spike towards a plane high above, it seriously reduces the amount of power it’s able to aim towards the more numerous callers on the ground. 20 callers on 3 planes flying overhead can heavily influence the amount of calls that can be made form the ground, therefore the FCC wishes to limit that type of activity.

    It has no (or negligible) effect on avionics equipment, but a lot of people on the ground will be ticked when their phones near the edge of service suddenly drop calls all of the time because the necessary power to reach them is no longer available. The tower-to-tower switching issue previously mentioned is also valid.