Cellphones In the Air: Why It Won’t Happen in the US

I read an interesting article about cellphones and air travel in this month’s Wired magazine.  We all know that airlines and governments are always threatening big trouble if we use our cell in the air.  But most engineers will agree that cellphone signals in no way actually threaten the pilot’s ability to navigate or control the plane.

So why the prohibition?  It has to do with two other factors that may not be obvious. The first is that the signal, if sent from a plane traveling at 33,000 feet, would be sent down to a myriad of different towers. Unlike if you were driving and the signal goes from tower A to tower B, a cellphone signal from the air would try to search for a bunch of towers, and it would be dispersed between them. The telcos don’t want the hassle of trying to separate the signals that come from the air, and they don’t get any extra money for their trouble. So that’s why they continue to insist that travelers can’t possibly use their phones or they will crash the plane.

The second reason? Most US passengers don’t want to have to listen to çhatty cathies who are speaking on cellphones during flights.  Although in Europe, some airlines are moving fast into letting passengers speak on the phones, the people there don’t have the same reservations as we do. Cellphones have been around and been ubiquitous in Europe longer than in the US.

So while some airlines are now prepared to let passengers send text messages to eachother and quietly surf the web, it will be a long time before any one can actually dial from up in the sky.