Here’s the technical reason why the use of cellphones are forbidden entirely on airplanes.

Have you ever wondered why cellphones are forbidden on flights? There are so many theories on that issue: from the notion that the plane might fall in mid air or the engine might break down if someone tried making a phone call, to who-knows-what-else. Spoiler Alert: That’s all not true! Cellphone use is no longer forbidden entirely on flights. However, the technical reason behind why they were forbidden isn’t about the safety of the plane, the flight, nor the passengers. Here’s why!

Related media: What Is Airplane Mode On A Cellphone

Cell Tower Connections

First and foremost, let’s take a crash course on how cellphone systems work in the first place to begin with. Whenever you make or receive a phone call, your phone searches for the nearest cell tower for connection. Each tower provides cellular service to an area within an 80-kilometer (50 miles) radar in flat terrain, and less than 1.61 kilometers (a mile) in urban centers or hilly areas.

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As you go about your daily commute, your cellphone gets handed off from one tower to another for service connection. This requires a fair bit of work on the part of the overall system to make this whole process seemless to you. However, there are also in-built expectations about when and how often these handoffs should occur (not very much, though), the pace of you the user (at supersonic speeds), and your altitude (somewhere at ground level).

Cellular usage on an airplane in flight breaks all three of these expectations. Phone calls made in the sky may interfere with the proper functioning of these cellular transmission systems — say a couple hundred passengers all have their radios on — that could affect users at ground level. So, for now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restricts cellular use on airplanes.

What’s All The Risk Involved?

If that being the reason, it sounds like a service issue, not a safety feature. So what would happen if you kept your cellular network on while in flight? Nothing at all! And that seems unfair to restrict you from calling that significant other. Ever since cellular use on airplanes were banned, people kept them on all the time, whether on purpose or not. However, using your phone on an airplane could interfere with the critical systems on the plane.

Most modern phones (smartphones) no longer interfere — GSM (2G) phones were notoriously noted for interfering. Former users of these phones will recall that buzzing feedback in your stereo when making or receiving a call. Now, take a second to imagine this buzz being picked up by a navigation system. You don’t need to be technically minded to understand that’s really bad. Researchers found that the electromagnetic emissions from phones interfere with plane systems. 

Image: Phone Arena / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Especially those in the range of 800-900 megahertz could interfere with the cockpit’s signals. This was common with older aircrafts, however, modern aircrafts are designed to filter the electronics on board the flight. Airplanes are complex machines filled with critical systems required for it to fly; and testing how safe all these complex systems are not as easy as they seem conceivable.

As more and more cellphones come in, the challenge of testing how each one would interfere with the systems on each aircraft in the commercial fleet worldwide would ever increase the risk of manufacturing new airplanes. Nowadays, airplane manufacturers develop these critical systems on their planes to make them less susceptible to interference from electronics.

Whence Cometh Airplane Mode?

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The FCC governs the use of cellphones on planes, whereas the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the use of all electronic devices on planes. If a device doesn’t interfere with the airplane’s critical systems, it can be used on board the flight. People kept and used laptops, cameras, tablets, video games and what-the-heck-else they had on board. So why not smartphones? This device alone has all the functions of all the above mentioned devices.

Henceforth, the FAA ruled allowed the use of cellphones on the condition if it’s cellular radio transmission was switched off. Enter Airplane Mode. This feature turns off your phone’s cellular radio so you can’t make phone calls or text — it also turns off WiFi and Bluetooth (however, you can opt to re-enabled and use both of them on planes, though). Airline companies like Delta, for instance, offer free access to certain messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which work over WiFi, but cellular texting is still prohibited.

There are experimenting with “picocells” — a sort mini, low-power cell towers within the airplane which would act as the nearest cell tower available. This would provide immediate cellular connection and wouldn’t connect to cell tower at ground level. Your phone call or text would hence be routed like a VoIP call using the plane’s onboard Internet provider system — but its not available yet, next time you board a flight, remember to switch on Airplane Mode or else the plane could fall in mid-air. Yikes! Just kidding.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, May 30, 2019.


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