Cellphone Calls Fail to Crash Airplanes


I’ve long squawked about how ridiculous the airline “safety” rules and procedures are.

Sully recently embarrassed me with his water landing, but at least the data on the danger of electronic devices is coming down on my side.

According to TechDirt, a European provider of in-flight cellphone calls has logged 10,000 calls without incident: no crashes, no interference with planes’ electronics, and no impact on ground networks.

So far there are no statistics, however, on how many thousands of other travelers wanted to kill the people jabbering on their cell phones on the planes.


How about in hospitals or doctor's offices? In both of these situations you don't want to be wrong, and I'm not sure I want people to use their phones in either place, but I've wondered if the ban is based on data or paranoia.


Its not an FAA regulation. Its an FCC regulation. Note how they never tell you the reason why you must turn off your cell phones or other electronic equipment.


Yes, but there are 13,000,000 flights per year in the US. What if there is only a 1 in 10,000,000 chance of an incident? Is it worth having 200 deaths per year so people can make inflight calls?

If I make a cell call, no, I have a better shot at winning the lottery (not going to happen) than to endanger the flight. But someone, somewhere wins the lottery every week.

If there's no feasible way that a phone is going to bring down a plane--then undo that regulation. If there is even a remote chance, keep it.

James K.

The specific requirement which bans the use of cellphones on US aircraft is *not* an FAA regulation --- it is an FCC regulation. The FCC does not want people using cellphones at altitude in an aircraft because it can tie up multiple cell phone nodes and slow down the system. It has nothing to do with impairing aircraft systems. That said, there *are* FAA requirements about the use of electronic devices onboard -- though it is primarily up to the aircraft operator to determine which devices are included.

Will Shaver

I can think of a couple of problems here:
1) I think that making people put phones etc away is so that they are paying attention during landing in case a quick evac is needed.
2) Cell phone talking on the plane would be annoying
3) In Japan it is highly rude, and prohibited by signs to talk on the trains
4) Cell phone users in Japan therefore are expert at text messaging

Perhaps text messaging on planes could become the norm...


Slate recently had a good article on this, http://www.slate.com/id/2215050/. Basically there is an overlap between the frequency the cellphone uses and the frequency the navigation system uses. Although the chances of anything happening is small, “continued use of portable RF-emitting devices such as cell phones will, in all likelihood, someday cause an accident by interfering with critical cockpit instruments such as GPS receivers.”

Is this an acceptable risk?

Carl Spackler

It was on mythbusters, they deemed it busted, but as Michael says, they choose to err on the safe side in this scenario:

"It was found that cell phone signals, specifically those in the 800-900 MHz range, did intefere with unshielded cockpit instrumentation. Because older aircraft with unshielded wiring can be affected, and because of the possible problems that may arise by having many airborne cell phones "seeing" multiple cell phone towers, the FCC (via enforcement through the FAA) still deems it best to err on the safe side and prohibit the use of cell phones while airborne"


NC Mom

MythBusters disagrees...it depends on the type of plane and cell phone signal. Since most people don't know the type of phone they have or they type of equipment on the plane...in this case people can live without their phones for a few hours.



Cell phones don't interfere with avionics, the frequencies are wrong. What using a cell phone moving at 500 mph at 40,000' used to do was blow out the cell phone network because the nodes weren't designed to handle the speed and the call hits hundreds of them at a time. Still, having heard at least three people making a call from the gondola at Steamboat Springs last week just to tell them they were on their way up the mountain, I'm happy with a ban on cell phones in planes, particularly on transatlantic flights. Last thing in the world I want to hear on a flight from Denver to Frankfurt is someone saying "wir haben Chicago gerade ueberflogen und das Essen schmeckt scheuslich...."


The airlines could make some extra cash by charging a premium for a "yapping" or "non yapping" section


Tim is right. The FCC doesn't want the cell network overloaded by the calls. This isn't as ridiculous as it may first appear. When in a car, a cell signal my touch only three or four towers. When 6 miles in the air, the call may touch hundreds or thousands of towers. And rather than traveling at 70 mph, the caller is traveling at several hundred mph. For a small number of calls, the network may work OK, but for hundreds of calls? The system just wasn't designed for it.

Alex B.

There are two problems with cell phones on airplanes. One is potential interference with navigation equipment, and the other is disruption of the communications network.

The navigation issue is the safety one - cell phones have the potential to disrupt key instruments. That's not going to crash a plane, but if the pilots are making an instrument only approach in bad weather and someone makes a cell phone call that disrupts their navigation, that could cause a serious problem.

The communication problem is that the cells that each phone connects to were designed for phones that are on the ground, and thus have limited range. At 35,000 feet, your phone can connect simultaneously to a lot of cells, causing some inefficiencies in the system - which is why the FCC doesn't like it. Realistically, you need a system where the plane has a receiver that the phones connect to, which then connects you to the phone grid via satellite.

Finally, I value the peace and quiet on flights. This isn't a train, where you can designate a quiet car - it's all one cabin.

Even if they allowed cell phones, I'd imagine they'd require them off and stowed for takeoff and landing like all other electronics - given that those two areas are the most critical and dangerous parts of the flight, too.



People have no respect for others. Period. I take a train in the morning, another confined space and loud conversations are the norm. Flying is often a frustrating activity to begin with. We don't need to have another place for people to show disrespect for those around them. Keep phones off planes.


Re: #3--A study attributed 2,600 annual deaths to drivers distracted by cell phones...so yeah, I guess the government thinks the risk of death is worth allowing people to use cell phones

Tim G

I think the cell phone ban has to do with two things. One point is shared with other electronic devices like ipods.

The first one is that if something happens during take off, landing, etc., the crew of the plane probably want you to be not tied up with headphones, etc, so they can communicate with you. And I'd be willing to bet that a lot of incidences happen in the first 15 or last 15 minutes of a flight. So they want your ears open so they can get your attention.

The other cell phone specific reason doesn't have much to do with interfering with flights, but probably interfering with cell towers. When you are in flight, you could be in range of many more cell towers than normal, which could induce a lot of load on the network in terms of trying to route your phone to the nearest tower - which is the nearest?

So the electronics ban does have something to do with your safety, but just not in terms of interfering with the plane. The other reason is so the cell networks themselves don't get bogged down. Kind of make sense why it's an FCC regulation and not and FAA one, right?

This is partially conjecture :D



The Mythbusters tackled this. It's not a % chance thing, it's a frequency thing. Cell phones just aren't working on the radio frequencies that would allow them to interfere with plane communication.

At the same time, the Mythbusters and/or the people they consulted made the good point that... while no phone tested THUS FAR has impacted communication, there's always so many devices being produced each year that it's impossible to keep up with testing and ensure you've tried every phone on every plane communication.

Plus, there's always the obnoxiousness factor, which is a big part of it too at this point. Confined spaces make people antsy, and cell phone conversations tend to get loud and obnoxious (whether intentional or not).

Planes are very quiet (which is surprising, now that I think about it) and I think it serves us all to keep them that way.


Might read this Slate article. Do you want to gamble with lives this way?



I've asked flight attendents before why I need to turn of my iPod just during take off and landing and none of them have ever been able to tell me.

It's all a hoax. I've accidentally left my cellphone on in my pocket before and... Nothing has happened. Do we REALLY believe that Boeing and Airbus would risk making planes where the cockpits weren't shielded from interference? Sometimes, like my example above, people are bound to just forget they have a cellphone on.

Several airlines in Europe such as Ryanair and Air France now provide the ability to use Blackberries and cellphones during the flight. So how come that doesn't interfere now but it did before?


If a three watt radio transmitter (aka a cellphone) can bring down a plane, you'd have to think that's a vulnerability that could have been as easily triggered by something else (a sweep of a radar beam, a microwave oven in the galley, etc.). There are roughly 90,000 daily flights in the US (military, commercial, and general aviation), so in the 20+ years of cellphone commercialization, there have three quarters of a billion flights -- any of them crashed because of a cellphone or even more broadly, radio interference? As 90% of those flights are civilian in nature, we probably would have heard about such an occurrence (and I'd bet that a majority of passengers at least keep their cellphones on in the 0.6 watt mode during flight, if not make calls).

There are other things on planes -- such as component failures -- that have astronomically low odds, yet planes keep flying. There's always "a chance" of something bad happening, but is it a high enough chance. Study after study have shown humans to be poor risk estimation skills. I think the cellphone ban is an instance where emotion overcomes reason.



Cell phones may still be a safety issue on planes even if they don't interfere with equipment or otherwise increase the likelihood of the plane crashing. Cell phones may be dangerous in planes for the same reason they're dangerous in cars: they're distracting. People talking on cell phones may be less likely to comply with lighted seatbelt signs, more likely to miss important announcements at dangerous times, and generally less aware of what's going on around them. While, undoubtedly, people facing an imminent crash are probably very likely to sit up and pay attention, people facing mere turbulence may not be. Banning cellphones, therefore, may actually reduce injuries from turbulence or other more common plane issues.

Additionally, of course, there's an increased risk of onboard violence when someone's into their third hour of cellphone yakking during a red-eye...