It’s a familiar routine: You board the plane, settle into your seat, and then text frantically, trying to eke out just one last message before you hear the flight attendant’s announcement to switch your portable electronic devices to airplane mode.
For now, switching to airplane mode is a federal requirement on U.S. domestic flights. You must disable wireless transmission functions such as cellular voice and data.
Here’s the answer: Cell phones are designed to send out signals strong enough to reach great distances. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which originally put the ban in place back in the early 1990s, the radio frequency emitted by these and other electronic devices could interfere with cell tower networks on the ground.
What Happens If You Forget to Turn On Airplane Mode?
If you don’t switch into airplane mode then your cell phone or cellular-enabled tablet will keep attempting to make connections with every cell tower on the ground that the airplane passes.
Not only will the signals cause interference with airplane navigation, the effort it takes your cell phone to keep scanning and tower hopping at fly-by speeds will drain your battery and still not maintain a constant signal.
“Cellular does not function as well with the speed and altitude of the plane and so needs an alternate off-aircraft connectivity solution to make it work,” says John Wade, EVP and Chief Operating Officer at Gogo, a technology company that provides in-flight connectivity and wireless entertainment services for Delta, United, and others.
“Wi-Fi usage takes advantage of the aircraft’s off-aircraft connectivity, enabling a better connection and functionality.”
Accessing In-Flight Wi-Fi
Several airlines are able to offer in-flight Wi-Fi because it’s satellite-based, not dependent on cellular tower connections.
Through this network you can surf online, read emails, check social media, or chat using Internet-based messaging apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. Although you can’t now text with SMS over cellular, you can using Wi-Fi.
And although you can’t now make in-flight voice calls over cellular, you could using Wi-Fi. But the airlines won’t allow it. United and most other carriers prohibit VoIP calls and also don’t support Internet-based streaming.
Those services require more extensive bandwidth and upgraded satellite technology than what is being accessed by most airlines around the world, says the FAA. Qantas and JetBlue are among the exceptions.
In February 2017, Qantas introduced its new in-flight Wi-Fi network using the upgraded technology. Connection speeds are up to 10 times faster than conventional in-flight Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to stream Netflix, Spotify, and other online content to their personal devices. This year, JetBlue announced gate-to-gate Internet connectivity as well as streaming services.
The Future of In-Flight Cellular
Nine years ago the European Commission began allowing in-flight cellular service throughout the EU. Several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, offer onboard voice calling, data, and texting, while others allow only data and texting.
Technically speaking, the service requires that each plane be fitted with its own mobile base station, a network control unit that prevents onboard phone signals from reaching land-based networks, and a satellite link to terrestrial phone networks.
The technology has been deployed successfully in Europe and around the world without incident, according to the FCC. It’s available in the United States, too. Some of Gogo’s business aviation customers are already using it, but none of the technology company’s 16 commercial airline customers have requested it.
Over the past several years the FCC has been collecting consumer and technical input as it considers new proposed rules that would give airlines the freedom to allow cellular service if the aircraft is outfitted with the new specialized onboard equipment.
If the FCC adopts the new rules, the final decision whether to implement in-flight cellular service is up to the airlines, which would still need to comply with FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.
Do Americans Even Want Voice Calling?
A recent Gogo Global Traveler study evaluated passengers’ interest of using and willingness to pay for voice calls in air. It found wide variations by region, with the greatest interest among Asian and Latin American markets. Forty-two percent of global passengers were interested in using voice services, compared to only 23 percent in the United States.
“The majority of passengers do not want in-flight mobile phone calls, so even if the FAA approves it many airlines have received feedback from their customers opposing it,” says Wade.
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Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to note that the ban on in-flight cellular data use originated with the FCC, not the FAA, and to clarify the reasons behind this ban.