Can You Use Your Phone on a Plane? Furthermore, Should You?

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Marie Look  | 
Airplane Mode icon is seen displayed on a phone screen
Do mobile phones really need to be in airplane mode on planes? Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mobile phones have become an integral part of modern existence, making it possible for us to call or text other people from anywhere. Or rather, from almost anywhere. Every time we board a flight, we hear someone ask (almost wishfully), "Can you use your phone on a plane?"

No, you can't, making a flight one of the few places where federal regulations bar you from using your device — or rather, your device's capability to connect to a phone company's cellular network for voice and data.


Using a cell phone on to connect to a cellular network while on a United States airliner is prohibited by not just one but two different organizations in the U.S. government.

Federal Aviation Administration Restrictions

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the governing body responsible for ensuring the safety of civil aviation in the United States, has banned cell phone calls and the use of cellular telephones installed on aircraft operated by U.S. carriers.

This ban isn't arbitrary; it's rooted in crucial safety concerns.


Modern aircraft are equipped with sensitive navigation and communication systems, which rely on radio signals to function properly. These aircraft systems, essential for safe flight, include navigation equipment and communication systems that connect with ground-based stations and satellites.

Any interference, even from seemingly harmless devices like cell phones, could potentially disrupt these critical aircraft instruments and compromise the safety of the flight. While no one has officially or definitively linked cell phone usage to an airline accident, we recommend listening to the FAA on this one.

In 2013, the FAA did soften its stance slightly, allowing the use of mobile devices in airplane mode.

A feature on most mobile phones and other portable electronic devices, airplane mode disables the cellular connection while allowing other functions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to remain operational. When you switch your device to airplane mode, you're turning off the cellular connection, mitigating the risk of its interference with the aircraft's systems.

While the FAA ban on cell phone calls is specific to the United States, many other countries have similar regulations in place. These restrictions are based on the recommendations of aviation experts and regulatory bodies that recognize the potential for interference with navigation systems and radio signals.


Federal Communications Commission Ban

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates mobile phones, banned airline passengers in 1991 from making calls in flight, out of concern that those signals would interfere with communications networks on the ground.

The FCC restriction is still in force, though the FCC did more recently consider a proposal to allow a technology that would have permitted passengers to make cellular calls without creating interference. It ultimately rejected the proposal in November 2020.


Flight attendants play a crucial role in ensuring compliance with both the FAA and FCC regulations. They remind passengers to switch their personal electronic devices to flight mode before takeoff and monitor the cabin throughout the flight to enforce the rules.

Research Into the Safety of Phone Use During Flights

So, is it really necessary to ban cell phone usage on airline flights? Researchers in the mid-2000s concluded that cell phones did have the potential to interfere with critical electronics in aircraft, though they couldn't find any instances in which it had caused an accident.

Sven Bilén, a Penn State University professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, says that phones aren't as much of a safety issue as they once might have been.


"Most planes nowadays are hardened," explains Bilén, who wrote an article about cell phones on aircraft for The Conversation in 2018. "There's always the possibility of some adverse interaction, but it's essentially a risk that the companies have tried to mitigate by hardening their electronics, by putting shielding around them."

Hardening or shielding means to surround the airplane's electronics (like the navigation or communication system) with an electrically conductive material to prevent electromagnetic interference from computers and cell phones.

There's pretty good evidence that such protection works, because as Bilén notes, there probably are plenty of passengers who don't turn off their phones' cellular connections, sometimes unintentionally, even after flight attendants remind them before takeoff.

"If there were major problems, we'd see planes falling out of the sky," Bilén says.

But that doesn't mean you can just ignore the ban.


Cell Phones and Ground Networks

"We are not aware of any technology that enables airline crews to identify someone who may be trying to make an in-flight call with a cellular phone," an FAA representative explains to us via email.

That said, if you try to make a call, you're likely to get caught, because "cabin crews or other passengers likely would be able to see whether a passenger is talking on a cell phone while a plane is airborne," the representative added.


The potential of cell phones to interfere with ground networks is probably more of a potential problem these days, according to Bilén. A bunch of people making calls while moving rapidly through the air theoretically could be pinging cell towers all over the place, taxing the ability of the cellular system to process and hand off the calls to the next cell in the network.

In practice, at normal cruising altitude of 36,000 feet (11 kilometers), "if you do have your cell connection on in the air, you probably won't get any cell towers," Bilén says. "The cell towers don't expect there to be traffic in the air, so their radiation patterns are focused on the ground."

It's probably only when planes descend to less than 10,000 feet (3 kilometers), as they get closer to landing, that passengers could flip on their cell phones, connect and cause interference.

Interestingly, a 2017 study by travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance found that 55.5 percent of Americans would be interested in the ability to make free cellular calls throughout an entire flight. Reasons cited included to make emergency calls, to stay connected with friends and family, to coordinate a pick-up at their destination and to remain connected to work.


How Onboard Cell Phone Service Works

So, how is it that some planes offer cellular service on board? There's a technology that allows passengers to make phone calls without the risk of interfering with the plane's electronics or ground networks.

As Bilén details in his article, picocells — basically, a miniature, low-power cell tower installed on the plane — allow phone calls to be transmitted over the aircraft's internet connection.


Since the early 2010s, Virgin Atlantic, a British airline, has provided in-flight cellular service using that technology. But the cellular service is discontinued once an aircraft is within 250 miles (402 kilometers) of the U.S. border.

Objections to In-Flight Cell Phone Use

Even though it's technologically feasible, don't expect to be able to make cell phone calls on a U.S. airline flight anytime soon.

The FCC spent seven years considering a rule change that would have allowed the use of cellular telephones on flights but ultimately abandoned the idea. This was after it faced intense opposition from a wide range of groups, ranging from flight attendants and machinists to aerospace workers and federal law enforcement officers.


One concern was that terrorists might use cell phones to detonate explosive devices. Another criticism was that if passengers had cell phones pressed to their ears, they might not hear important safety instructions from the flight crew.

Others objected because they saw passengers talking on cell phones as an annoyance inside the cramped confines of an airliner, where people may be trying to read, sleep or converse with a travel partner.

Bilén, who says he uses plane flights to respond to his emails, agrees with that view. "The whole idea of someone yapping next to you — that would drive me nuts," he says.

We updated this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.