Cell phone usage on planes

The main story on CNN.com today is about cell phone usage on planes. They point out that this topic has led to some fights on flights.

So what’s my take?  Well first of all, aside from rare exceptions you will not get cell signal at cruise altitude.  The idea that people would yak away constantly if allowed is not likely.  Why?  Well because most cell towers point down.  They have an obligation to transmit signal on the ground, not 30,000 feet in the air.  This means that by the time the 10,000 feet chime sounds there is usually no signal.  Sometimes on turbo prop flights we don’t get high enough to actually lose signal, but if you make a phone call over the drone of the turbo prop then I’m pretty sure the person on the other end will hang up very quickly.

The policy currently states that electronic devices including cell phones should be OFF.  Airplane mode is for when you are over 10,000 feet.  I’ve seen flight attendants simply put their phones into airplane mode and slip it back into their pocket though.

What do I think about all of this?  The main thing is they want your attention in case anything happens.  This means my phone is in my pocket or bag and I will not touch it until over 10,000 feet.  If you can’t follow that part of the rule then you are in for a punch from your seat mate or a scolding from the FA.  After the chime for 10,000 feet sounds I dare you to try and find meaningful cell reception.  It doesn’t exist.  There is no reason to leave a cell phone in cell mode during the cruise part of the flight.  Why?  You will just drain your battery as your phone attempts to find signal.  Maybe you hit a pocket and can receive a text message, but I have not experienced significant cell reception on AT&T or Verizon during cruise so you’ll probably lose it again by the time you compose a text.  It’s just not worth the effort to bother.

So, keep it put away below 10,000 and keep it in airplane mode over 10,000 feet.  It isn’t worth it to start a fight with a seatmate because you just had to get to the next level of angry birds.


  1. There’s no reason with MODERN aircraft, that have shielded electronics, to prohibit using electronics below 10,000 feet. The issue is that we have planes from the 1970s still flying with some airlines, so the FAA / FCC keeps the rules in place.

  2. The issue is that (a) they won’t work, and (b) even if they did, the airlines want you using the $10 a minute seat back phone.

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