No phone calls on planes… for a long time to come

FCC Chair Ajit Pai laid it all out yesterday. He does not plan to pursue new rules that would have allowed people to talk on their phones while on planes. As we all know, the rule prohibiting voice calls is supposed to be to protect the sensitive electrical systems on the plane, but we all also know that there’s no truth to that. Most electronic devices can be used in “airplane mode” from beginning to end on a flight, and let’s be honest, a lot of people don’t even bother to do that. The only reason I do is that it saves battery.

You can use Wi-Fi on most planes as well, and there is absolutely no evidence at this point that any flight was ever or will ever be endangered by the use of any transmission or reception made by a cell phone on a plane. Period.

So why can’t you make phone calls? Because by and large people are stupid, ignorant, and inconsiderate. Chair Pai pretty much goes ahead and says it when he says, speaking of squashing a proposal to potentially allow calls on planes,

I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet.

In other words, he knows that without this rule, the person next to you would be on the phone the entire fricken time. It’s bad enough when there’s a long layover and you know there’s always going to be this one person at the gate who is shrieking and bubbling into their phone for an hour, and you can hear it for 50 feet in any direction. Imagine what it would be like if that person was sitting next to you and they had to speak up over the roar of the plane.

By the way, it’s not illegal, unethical, or in any way wrong for the FCC to ban cell phone calls because they are annoying. While it does seem like it would be better to have some sort of technical interest, the FCC is charged with administering the airwaves in a way that serves the public. If they determine (and can defend the idea) that the public is best served by making sure Molly McChatterbox sitting next to you can’t call her bestie and sit on the phone for two hours, they are within their right.

Another thing to consider is that planes are just not good environments for cell phones. First of all they are big metal tubes with shielding in them, so cell signals have a tough time getting through. Second, most cell signals travel 2-3 miles under the best case, so a plane traveling 500mph at 6 miles up is not going to get good signal.

Before you chime in that those people on the planes on 9/11 had good enough signal… first of all they were still very low altitude and second the analog phones used at the time had a different characteristic when it came to distant cell towers. I promise, this is not a conspiracy.

So if the FCC were actually going to allow cell phone conversations on planes, the planes themselves would need to be outfitted with cellular repeaters similar to the repeaters they use to give Wi-Fi to customers. And realistically that’s not going to happen; people want Wi-Fi so they can entertain themselves, and most of the time they don’t want phone calls because you’re on a noisy plane anyway.

Bottom line here folks, be glad that there won’t be cell phone calls on planes for a long time to come, especially if you remember Sprint’s failed “AirPhone” service, where you could make phone calls from your seat. It was about $10 a minute if I recall, and most people did it once just to shout “I’M CALLING YOU FROM THE PLANE!!!!!” and that was about it. That was about as annoying as it is possible to get on a plane.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.