inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


Cell Phones on Airplanes

They tell us it's dangerous to use cell phones on airplanes, but the facts are obvious.

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Ever since cell phones were invented, flight attendants have warned us that they must be turned off for safety reasons. Really? Compared to the massive, constant blasts of radio from all sources on the planet, is my little cell phone really the only one that an airliner is in danger from?

That's what a lot of people believe, including a lot of people at the airlines, and a lot of the flight attendants themselves. The fact is it's not at all true. Aircraft electronics are shielded from all radio sources, including those much more powerful than nearby cell phones. Airbus and Boeing spend millions of dollars on safety, hardening their aircraft against every conceivable danger. If either the aircraft manufacturers or the regulators felt that cell phones might even be a slight risk to flight safety, then you'd be allowed to bring them on board just the same way you bring dynamite on board: Meaning, not at all.

Still need more evidence? A number of airlines are now offering in-flight service for your cell phone. All they had to do is install a micro cell tower on board the plane that's cleared to work with the cell network. There's been no need to do anything to protect the aircraft itself or its electronics.

Some think the safety aspect has to do with requiring the passengers to be attentive during the safety briefings, or takeoff and landing phases. Really? They let you read books; they let you take naps; they don't stop you from doing either one of those. Moreover, they give you magazines, they give you headphones. Some think they don't want loose phones flying around the cabin. Really? Like the ice they give you, or the books and cans and everything else they let you hold?

The real reason the ban exists has nothing to do with flight safety. Cell phone networks have a small risk of not work properly when a phone accesses them from a high vantage point, and so federal communication regulators prohibit the use of mobile phones from the air. Federal aviation regulators enforce it because of the communication laws.

Now, a lot of people say that phones should be banned because it's annoying for other passengers. That's fine, that's a perfectly valid perspective; but it's not valid to promote this perspective by making up bad science to claim the phones are a danger to the aircraft.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Elgan, Mike. "Why cell phones are still grounded." Computer World, 6 Apr. 2007. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. <>

Ely, J.J., Nguyen, T.X., Koppen, S.V., Salud, M.T. "Electromagnetic interference assessment of CDMA and GSM wireless phones to aircraft navigation radios." Proceedings of the 21st Digital Avionics Systems Conference. 10 Dec. 2002, Volume 2: 13E4-1- 13E4-13.

Heussner, K. "Why Can't We Use Cell Phones On Planes?" abcnews.go. ABC News Internet Ventures, 9 Feb. 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <>

Koski, O. "Why Can't You Use Cell Phones on Airplanes?" Scienceline. NYU Journalism, 8 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <>

RTCA Committee SC-159. Assessment of Radio Frequency Interference Relevant to the GNSS L1 Frequency Band (DO-235B). Washington: RTCA, Inc., 2008.

RTCA Committee SC-177. Portable Electronic Devices Carried on Board Aircraft (DO-233). Washington: RTCA, Inc., 1996.



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