NOT THAT YOU WOULD BUT: Could you hook up a cell booster in a plane and get service?

Since 2014, you can legally use your cell phone on a plane… but there’s a hitch. It turns out that if you want in-flight data, you have to pay the airline. It turns out there’s no service up in the friendly skies. Back in 2001, when it was legal to make a call on a plane, cell technology was different and since then, new tower technology has meant that cell signals are pointed out toward the people who need them, not up in the air.

So, let’s just say that you brought a cell booster on a plane. Some planes have power outlets at the seat, so let’s say that you plugged it in, convinced another passenger who was 20 feet away to hold the outdoor antenna, and you held the indoor one. Would it work?

Big Fat Disclaimer… There is a strong possibility that it’s still illegal to use a cell booster on a plane. There are any of a dozen FCC rules and airline rules that probably stop you from doing this. So don’t do it.

For the record we didn’t do it either. Why? Because we’re pretty sure it wouldn’t work for three reasons:

Because you have to point the outdoor antenna at the tower. And, you know, the tower is DOWN. There’s a lot of plane between you and the ground and a lot of it is made of metal. There’s no way the outdoor antenna would penetrate.

Because you have to point it at the tower and that means you’d have to constantly move it.
 Cell boosters aren’t made to move like that. Before you say that we could use one designed for a car, those have weaker antennas and aren’t likely to work inside the plane either.

Because the towers are like 8 miles away at least. If you’re up at 45,000 feet, then you’re 8 miles from a ground based tower even if you’re right on top of it. Throw in some fancy geometry and you could be 10 or 12 miles away from a tower. That’s a lot to ask of a cell booster that usually works best from a distance of just a few miles.

Why does inflight cell service work? Because planes have much bigger cell boosters and the antennas are outside the plane, simple as that.

So leave that booster at home and enjoy another bag of peanuts. If you really need to make a call, just pay the airline and grumble about it.

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.