Do Cell Phones and Airline Flights Mix?


istock_000000927345xsmallOne of the more uplifting experiences for a blogger-writer on a general-interest news website like myself occurs when I ask readers in a column to tell me what they think of allowing cell phone calls on an airline flight.

This the third time in about three years I’ve asked, and the response each time has been rapid and vociferous, generating at least eight to 10 times more responses than I usually get to a column.

And what do the people – or at least my people – say? They are horrified at the very mention of the idea, with some vowing to stop flying or get into physical confrontations at 30,000 feet if they are subjected to the ill-mannered around them chattering away on the phone in a cramped airline cabin. Out of 58 e-mails and phone calls so far, 56 said they’re vigorously opposed.

Here’s a typical response, this one from a business owner in Chester, Pa:

I can think of nothing that would make travel more unbearable than cell phone use on airplanes. People are loud, rude and inconsiderate in the terminal. It would be even worse on a plane.

If you feel the same way, don’t worry. The prohibition about voice calls is not about to change. But the ability to access the Internet for e-mail and texting in flight is changing, and we want to know what web workers who have to fly on business think about all of it.

First, I need to say more about the whole issue of why you can’t make a cell phone call in flight, and my theory of why my other audience – the readers of a weekly newspaper column that appears in both print and online – has such strong negative attitudes about the subject.

Cell calls in flight (other than on those very expensive seatback phones still available on some carriers) are outlawed because of Federal Aviation Administration uncertainty about their effect on aircraft navigation and communication equipment. The Federal Communications Commission has had concerns whether cell phone service at ground level could be disrupted by in-flight service.

But that hasn’t been the deal-killer each time the FAA or FCC has opened the subject to study and comment.

Flight attendants, joined by thousands of people like my newspaper readers, have pleaded for the prohibition to stay in place out of fear that the annoyance factor would lead to greater “air-rage” incidents.

For the first time, that term could be applied to more sober people than drunks.

Congress has even gotten into the act, after the European Union last spring said airlines that want to allow Internet access could also allow voice calls. A bill prohibiting the practice passed the House on a voice vote but hasn’t been taken up the Senate.

The opinions of my newspaper readers on this topic are not a scientific sampling, of course, in the same way that few “surveys” on the web are, since those who answer are self-selected. My readers also are older and almost certainly less tech-savvy than readers of this blog. Some were also probably influenced by my own opposition to any change.

But many of the newspaper readers also are business people, and only one of them told me he doesn’t own a cell phone. So they probably aren’t unlike those who have told regulators they want to keep the in-flight ban.

The good news about this for those who would like to work on the web on an airplane is that access for e-mail, texting and web browsing is coming soon or is already here.

American Airlines installed a system on some of its long-haul domestic jets in August. Alaska, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America are among the U.S. carriers that have said they plan to offer something similar. Expect to pay $10 to $13 per flight for access. And to answer one obvious question, no, your VoIP service won’t work either.

Time now to open the floodgates and ask what web workers think.



The correct analogue here is the train. Anyone who has ever taken Amtrak (even the basic reserved trains) knows that it’s generally unbearable. From business people to the traveling hausfraus whose call people up simply to say they’re calling from the train and then proceed to talk about their physical ailments and body fluids for 40 minutes, it’s miserable. The only sanity one can find is in the Quiet Car, and believe me – every person who goes and sits in the quiet car is quite prepared to visit bold acts of aggression upon anyone who breaks the rules. In fact, you can always tell who’ll have your back when you decide to open a can by the knowing glance that says “you hit ’em high, i’ll hit ’em low, and then we’ll rip their arms off and beat them to death with them”.

If this were to come to pass I would happily give up my preferred status upgrades for a spot in the “Quiet Section” of the plane.

Martin Clarke

Emirates also already allows this. I was on a flight to Oz last week where you could use your mobile/cell after take off. It wasn’t widely used. I don’t think it really matters since so many planes (even in economy) have sat phones installed.

I think it is fine myself. Someone chatting on a mobile/cell will simply join the list of hazards we already deal with when traveling; such as crying babies, stag/hen parties on the flight and broken entertainment systems.

Eric S. Mueller

Perhaps I haven’t done sufficient research on this topic, but over the years, other than FAA claims about “interference with instrumentation”, the only real argument I’ve ever heard against using cell phones on planes is “I don’t want to sit next to the self-important jerk who has to talk loud on his cell phone!” While that is certainly a concern many people have (I’d just follow dtj’s suggestion in the previous comment), I have yet to hear a serious ARGUMENT (as in a position, not a bunch of contention) against using cell phones on planes. I can’t provide one.


I’m not terribly worried about obnoxious cellphone users on flights, any more than I am worried about obnoxious talkers on the plane. The reason to avoid cellphone usage on planes is the havoc that it wreaks on the cell tower infrastructure. I’m typically plugged into an ipod on a plane, or asleep, so someone yammering on a cellphone would either be a non-issue or get dealt with through some carefully chosen words.

When it comes down to it, the cellphone user is talking to someone else that doesn’t have a grasp of the cellphone users context. Do if the jerk is talking loudly on his phone, just get close and say jokingly to who ever “Should I get you a beer while I am up?” in a stage whisper within earshot of the cellphone. That’ll usually take care of it.

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