Actually, You Don’t Need To Switch Your Phone To Airplane Mode (And Inflight Calls Are Ok, Too)

Leave your phone on if you want. If you ignore crew instructions you may get kicked off of a flight but there’s no safety reason that you need to switch your cell phone to airplane mode when you fly. And it’s time to lift the ban on inflight calling.

Airplane mode is more of a common courtesy our government imposes on us than a safety precaution. The U.S. government won’t let you make phone calls inflight because it’s unpopular with passengers, and politicians don’t like to do unpopular things. There’s no safety reason for it.

  • Two decade old pico cells can prevent phone signals from interfering with a plane’s communications. And it’s not clear that interference ever actually happened in any case. The FAA didn’t find any instances of it.

  • The FCC originally banned use of cell phones inflight 33 years ago based on (mostly hypothetical) risk of interference with ground networks but technology in place for decades makes that a non-issue today.

Airline unions, especially flight attendant unions, lobby against allowing calling inflight. But the parade of horribles said to follow is not credible.

  • Cell phones can be used on planes under European rules. And many airlines around the world provide for wifi-based calling. Hijinks do not ensue.

  • Amtrak lets people use cell phones with passengers confined closely together. Again, few meltdowns even though few passengers wear noise-cancelling headphones.

  • People talk to each other on planes now and those around them hear it!

  • You can make inflight wifi calls on JSX and that seems to go just fine.

There’s no good reason to think we’d have melees in the sky if the federal government dropped its ban on inflight calls on commercial airlines. Since there’s no demonstrable safety reason for it, policies should be up to the airlines who have generally said that if the government allowed inflight calling, they would adopt policies against it.

However I’d make the affirmative case for allowing inflight calling, not just lifting the ban. It used to be available via services like Airfone (which was acquired by Gogo and capacity redirected to internet services over a decade ago).

Conversations can be truly important. Dozens of final phone calls were placed from the four planes hijacked on 9/11, to family and to emergency personnel. I guess rules against it didn’t matter at that point, since administrative punishment was rather beside the point.

This Southwest Airlines passenger who might have been able to stop a suicide if she could have used her phone inflight.

Airlines used to have non-smoking sections on planes, Amtrak has quiet cares, surely we can figure out how not to make inflight calling illegal and at the discretion of airlines whether to allow it. Just be careful of roaming charges if you leave your phone on while flying internationally.

(HT: @scottlincicome) via @crucker)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,
    once again, you weigh into an issue which you don’t understand.
    The problem technically is that cell phones are connected to ground towers and those towers do not work in an aircraft above about 5000 feet. Even at lower altitudes, those towers are not designed to keep hand calls from tower to tower at 150 MPH.

    Cell phone calls work where aircraft have equipment to retransmit calls to the ground.

    The human reason for not allowing calls is a whole different reason. US carriers are, for good reason, opposed to and prohibit cell or WiFi calls on their aircraft.

  2. This has not now or ever been about airplane safety. This is and has always been about disturbance to other passengers. No one, and I mean no one wants to listen to someone else’s loud and audibly intrusive conversations in an area that you can’t escape from listening. As a frequent flier, i don’t want to listen to anyone else’s conversations and I should not be forced too either. If your conversation can’t wait until you land, then maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be on the plane.

    All Airlines can but won’t get Wi-Fi on all the planes, and now they want our entertainment, in a captive environment, to be someone talking on their phone. Please, the vast a majority of air passengers in North America are business travelers, and after a long day of meetings and back to back flight’s and all that encopasees business travel, the last thing we want to do listen to someone on their phones. No thank you, I’ve spent my career in the air and frankly, not personalizing this, but, outside of your own personal sphere, no one cares about your conversations or cares to hear them.

    Not that people’s conversations aren’t important but – time and place – time and place. If there is an event while in the air, then, everyone will be on their phones, other than that, it can wait until you land. Just my own personal opinion, but, if people are allowed to intrude on my quite time with no means of escape, than, my opinion matters as much as anyone else’s. Keep the sky’s quiet.

  3. Gary, it’s not often where I am “trapped” in a location where I have no avenue of escape other than when I’m being transported on an airplane/jet.

    I’d rather not be subjected to being forced to listen to others’ inane partial conversations at unacceptable volume levels where I have no avenue of escape. You’re counting on the consideration of others. I’m not.

    Given your assertion as gospel, I’d rather airlines have their own rule to allow passengers to make and/or receive calls in an emergency only … and hope passengers comply. Allow texting for other purposes.

  4. As a Cape Air pilot said on a recent flight… You can leave your phones on, but at altitude you won’t get any signal so all you’re going to do is burn down your battery in a hurry. Until airplanes have the hardware to make internet calls, or have it enabled, it won’t work.

    I’m not so much worried about the person making a quick phone call or even a business call. It’s the propensity of half the population to sit on Facetime with somebody else their entire life whether it’s eating ribs or taking a crap. Or the person making some presentation over Teams (I hate that even in the airline clubs).

  5. Gary-you are dead wrong on this topic. You can’t compare a train to a plane. A lot of noise on a plane and the only way to keep a conversation is to talk loudly. Not because you can’t hear but because the person you would be talking to would not be able to hear. Melee would 100% follow. There have been instances of people making calls while in an airline lounge where I was just 10 seconds from saying something. You are naive to think that using a phone on a plane is a good thing. Maybe it would be beneficial for people like you who are working a lot on a plane but for most people, it would be an absolute annoyance and result in a lot of emergency landings.

  6. It’s why I sit in the quiet car on the Amtrak train. Back in the day, when it was legal, I heard too many shouting matches with kids, spouses, etc. Please no, we don’t need cell phones at 50k ft.

  7. Returning from Nashville last month, I was in the Sky Club for a couple of hours before my flight. Now, if you know the BNA Sky Club…you know it’s pretty calm and quiet on a Saturday afternoon.

    Except on this particular day. A young lady – who apparently saw no reason to use the private phone area – decided that the entire club needed to hear about: a) the boots she bought b) the guys she met c) how everything was super, super expensive (In fact I started to think she was getting paid by her use of the word ‘super’) d) her hotel, etc. etc. etc.

    She eventually left for her flight, and I swear I thought the whole place was going to applaud.

    My point? That was in a spacious Sky Club. If that had happened next to me on the plane? Would not have gone well.

  8. It’s a shame we can’t give up our phones for a few hours. When I go out to a restaurant with my family, phones are not allowed and the same goes when they come over and eat at our house. No texting, no calling.
    I’m with Tom, please don’t ever allow phone calls in the cabin and if you do allow something, texting seems to be a good compromise.

  9. Gary,
    I disagree with you on two grounds.
    1. Technical. As was previously stated, the ground cellular network isn’t designed for high speed handoffs. Cell phones in an aluminum semi faraday cage have a very limited range. 40,000 doesn’t work.

    2. Intrusive. I traveled for about 200 days a year for 20 years for work. The only time things calmed down was on the plane. Email still followed and occasionally I needed to finish up something in flight and ship it.
    Planes are loud. Ear plugs and noise cancelling headphones were the norm for me. Trying to talk in the phone inflight has the person using it shouting and they generally don’t realize it. No one should be subject to that.
    If the airlines allowed it, they should sell the last two rows by the labs or rear galley as phone seats. Nothing forward of that. It would be a way to monetize the worst seats in the plane. No phone use standing.

    Even on the ramp, there are folks that think their conversation is way too important to wait. Maybe? But that isn’t one I’ve heard.

    I have spoken to a few of the louder folks in clubs and in the plane just to let them know they had disclosed a lot of company sensitive info to the crowd.

    Then there is Grandma on a loud speaker phone with whoever also shouting.

    Think “Air Rage” is bad now? Allow inflight calling.

  10. Technology aside, it would be crazy to allow phones to be used in flight. Passenger behavior is at an all time low. Passengers already behave badly in terms of overhead bins and the recline feature on seats. We should definitely now add another potential flash point into the mix.

  11. Dear God. No.

    No one needs to make a cell phone call while in flight. No one needs to listen to your cell phone call while in flight.

  12. In flight phone calls should not be allowed. Having just traveled on an ACELA from DC to NY in the non-quiet car, I, along with my fellow passengers, had to endure a loud mouth Karen calling all her friends to make Friday night plans in NYC, for 2 hours and 40 minutes. In flight phone calls should not be allowed.

  13. Is this still banned in the USA? Wow.

    I’ve gotten so used to using VOIP calling inflight all over the world that I didn’t even realise that the US was still living in the 20th century.

  14. @Gary’s brain is pretty much a rock of bad information. You read this forum … it’s for some sort of amusement but not facts. Ignore everything this guy says. He will mislead you in every direction possible.

  15. 100 percent agree with Gary. Leave it up to the airlines. It won’t make that much of a difference in any case because calls usually don’t work for most of the flight on the cellular network. But this put your phone in airplane mode ritual we do every time we fly is absurd.

  16. Tim’s point is correct. The problem is with towers on the ground, not interference with the plane.

    This article is ill-informed and should be taken down.

  17. @Sean M, you were not aware than US airlines/flights do not allow phone calls? You definitely do not travel ‘all over the world” dumbo….

  18. However, leaving the cell service on while flying will cause your phone to constantly search for a tower, eating up battery life quick, no ?

  19. If those commenting here want to help themselves and other passengers, they should act to get the distance between seats in economy class increased.
    We can live w/o out cell phones for the duration of a flight just as smokers can live without smoking for the duration of a flight.

  20. @Gary, no one is saying they cause problems with the towers. They’re just saying the towers aren’t designed to carry calls traveling at 30k ft and 500mph. The only way to have calls in flight above 3k ft or so is VOIP through the wifi.
    Airplane mode just saves the battery.

  21. Oh, good. Another reason for in-flight fist fights. Makes me think of a woman sitting on a lounge chair a few feet away calling everybody on her contacts list, ignoring a beautiful view on a beautiful day.

    “Hi. Betcha can’t guess where I am? Maui. Yep.” Next call: “Hi, betcha can’t guess where I am? Maui. Yep.” It went on and on. Imagine her on a plane. “Hi. Betcha can’t guess where I am? On a plane to Maui. Yep.” And on and on.

    She’s lucky she survived that day in Maui. I wouldn’t like her chances on the long-haul flight.

  22. Absolutely no on allowing calls. We all have been in restaurants and places where we cannot easily get up and move from some obnoxious jerk who cannot wait to get on his phone. Nothing worse than being trapped in a space separated by inches and having to listen to them. So many people anymore put their phones on speaker and you even have to listen to both sides of the conversation. Even prior to the door closing I have had seat mates engrossed in conversation, talking loudly, and they sometimes even continue till the flight attendant tells them to get off the phone. It is like a God send when the jerk finally has to hang up. I was on a flight not along ago and a man watched a movie on speaker using his phone. Luckily, I was far enough away it was just dull noise but I would have hated to have been seated next to him. On my very next flight my seatmate arrived and had a ball game on speaker. I immediately asked him, you are not going to listen to that on speaker the whole flight, are you? He replied no he would put it on his ear buds as soon as he could get them out. People need to learn to respect others. I use my phone a great deal for business and to stay in contact with family but short of a real emergency there is no reason for me to use my phone in flight.

  23. Obviously, people talking on the cell phone somehow makes them think it isolates them from those in their immediate vicinity. You can’t help but listen, so introduce yourself and join the conversation. It irritates the bejesus out of them, and it’s fun to watch the reaction.

  24. Wi-fi mode with internet access addresses tower concerns.

    Regardless of the desirability of cell phone calling in flight, it doesn’t do much for airline credibility when crew member falsely proclaims that the ban is for flight safety reasons.

  25. Am TOTALLY against inflight calls. People talk loudly when they have ambient noise (as in flight) and are oblivious to others around them. I have to use flight time to do work and concentrate and do NOT carry noise-cancelling headphones.
    This idea is terrible!!!!

  26. People insist on talking more loudly when on the phone. It is not the same as conversing with a fellow passenger. Maybe your idea of sections would work, but are people going to plan to talk on the phone? I’m just not as interested in their lives as they seem to think I am, especially the business person who it seems wants everyone to know how important he is.
    I don’t have room to carry big noise-canceling headphones. Also, I might want to hear if a seatmate is trying to talk to me.
    I think it sounds horrible. Can you imagine a number of those loud people trying to talk at the same time, and then talking even more loudly so that they can hear over the voices of the other phone talkers? Sounds awful. I like to be able to relax on the plane.

  27. Gary,
    it isn’t urban legend.
    Cell phone calls from jet airplanes don’t work.
    If you actually tried it, you would know.
    Instead of doubling down on stupid, accept that there are genuine technical reasons.

    Ignoring those realities so you can go on a rant about what you want but the vast majority of US passengers have said they don’t want and US airlines ALL agree they won’t do is the height of click bait.

  28. NO, NO, NO! I like things the way they are. Due to various reasons, travelers are already stressed and agitated. If we allow people to talk on their phones this will increase the stress and agitation of the other passengers. Many people talk TOO LOUD on their phones. What about the old people that use speaker mode because they are hearing impaired and refuse to get a damn hearing aid. Imagine yourself trapped in a middle seat while passengers all around you are yapping incessantly at full volume in speaker mode for the duration of a LONG flight. As someone else already commented, I agree texting is a good compromise.

  29. I’d go nuts if the passenger next to me shouted into a phone for the duration of a flight. It’s loud and even good Bose noise-cancelling headphones won’t mute nearby shouted conversations. Last week, a woman in the row behind me insisted on talking and talking on a clearly unimportant call (could hear every word) because she was bored until we started taxiing for takeoff and the attendant told her to put it away. Blessed silence.

    I’d much rather sit next to the guy again who was furiously rubbing his rosary beads and praying under his breath before takeoff than someone yakking on the phone.

  30. With work, when I’m not on the phone, I’m traveling to replace a phone call with face to face time. I don’t want to be on the phone while I’m flying and I can rightfully tell my employer and my customers that I’m out of pocket despite it being business hours. That’s my time.

    And that’s saying nothing about the people around you taking calls on public transportation. People taking calls on speakerphone is a daily occurrence on the light rail

  31. It would be trivial for an airline to enable WiFi calling by just removing the firewall rules which prevent them. If one enables a VPN over WiFi, chances are good the call will go through without any action on the part of the airline. There are no FAA or FCC rules which would prevent this. While the network could try to identify the pattern of packet sizes and packet frequencies to block this, I’m not sure that they do. I did join a Teams meeting on a domestic flight, but stayed muted, and it did work.

    Putting a pico cell on an airplane to enable a phone call using cellular frequencies is a technology that is no longer necessary now that WiFi is available on most airplanes and phones. Starlink would provide a lower latency experience than the current geostationary satellites used for WiFi, but is not absolutely necessary. There is still the ground to 10000 foot level during which most satellite connections are disabled, and calls won’t work.

    Also, keeping the cellular radio enabled won’t use that much battery, as the radio will never be in transit mode. Modern networks only allow phones to transmit at specific precise times. There is a time for when unregistered phones can send attachment requests, but phone has to receive a signal to know when that time is. It will not receive that signal at 30,000 feet. It may waste some energy tuning the radio to different frequencies to listen for other networks, but that’s about it.

    I used to work for a wireless network equipment manufacturer and am somewhat familiar with the mobile protocols and the VoiP protocols on use since VoLTE was introduced. There were issues with the original cellular equipment based on AMPS, an analog protocol, but it was mostly a problem with general aviation while flying without ILS at lower altitude. A single phone could contact 40 towers, and that occupied the assigned frequency in many cells. Additionally, it overloaded the network with 40 copies of the same conversation, which was a real problem with 1980s technologies. But that’s not how any of that works these days.

  32. Put me in the 99% of respondents who are against allowing calls in planes.

    Texting is sufficient.

    Excluding perhaps the blind and illiterate, There are few to no people w no need to talk on the plane.

    I just put out several major leadership fires by text on a flight back to MSP. No call needed.

    Using Gary’s example: A person can get suicide support by text. I’m quite sure flight attendants will allow phone calls in a hostage situation.

    Can’t see Congress passing a law allowing phone calls given that they aren’t needed and almost nobody wants them.

  33. Twice in the last 3 weeks I have been assaulted by 3-hour-long conversations onboard planes; once was a speakerphone-call, the other a loud conversation between two passengers. (That’s when I found out earplugs don’t block shrill voices. )
    Any conversation that can be clearly heard by other passengers is offensive. Please be considerate; we are not able to walk away from you, as we can in the supermarket. And we really have no interest in what the girls at bridge club have been up to. Please wait until you are in a private space to find out.

  34. Wow! I completely agree with Tim Dunn on this. Gary as he stated “Instead of doubling down on stupid, accept that there are genuine technical reasons.” And as John stated “This article is completely irresponsible of you, and there ought to be consequences.”
    Not wishing it on you but Karma can be a bitch Gary. Enjoy your flights.

  35. Gary – Really? You.have complained in the past about loud mouth boors in the Admirals Club screaming in their phones.

    I can only hope you get wedged into a center seat on Southwest out of LGA with two screaming New Yorkers beside you.

  36. Hmmmm, I didn’t know Gary went thru F/A and Pilot training. Actually, there ARE reasons besides being totally annoying. Also, if you do leave your phone in on cell mode, it will suck your battery trying to find signals.

  37. You have lost your freaking mind! It is NOT an “urban legend” as you claim. Crapbait…er clickbait. I sat in the departure hall at Heathrow last Christmas. It is always packed as passengers await the gate assignments to post. Three people within a few feet were talking…I mean shouting into their cell phones AND had the speakers on! There was NO PLACE for me to hide from this insanity. Can you image sitting in an enclosed tube for 8-10 hours with these same ***holes screaming into the phone? NO WAY JOSE! As a HAM radio operator and pilot instructor for an airline, I understand the FCC and FAA regulations. Contrary what “John H.” says, FCC 47 CFR § 22.925 – Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones. is quite clear. FAA regulation 14 C.F.R § 91.21 prohibits the use of portable electronic devices, including mobile phones, for all commercial flights and for those private flights being made under instrument flight rules (IFR). Airlines operate under instrument flight rules all the time. So the US carriers are bound by two sets of federal regulations. THANK GAWD. So, when a crew member says to put the cell phones in “airplane mode”…they ain’t kiddin’.

  38. I’m all for allowing cell phones. The Golden Age of Flying decorum on public carriers disappeared long ago. Anyone expecting domestic decorum may fly private jet. Anyone expecting Intercontinental decorum may fly Etihad The Apartment.

  39. Not turning on airplane mode is an easy way to quickly deplete your phone’s battery. The cellular modem/antenna in the phone will be running at max power the whole flight while trying to search/acquire a signal.

  40. Hey all you skyCrabbies who are offended by human voices … Grow up, Learn how to filter, or Buy some headphones. Or retire, if can’t handle 2024 technology. If you think YOUR airfare entitles you to a quiet spa,…HA! Drive your car instead. You are entitled to mass-transport ONLY.

    That being said, I loved CactusDick’s suggestion to insert YOURSELF into your neighbor’s phone conversation if it’s loud enough for you to hear it.

    Your main complaint is that your seatmates disrespect you with their noise. I feel your pain. But that’s the luck of the draw. Bring your headphones. And learn how to tolerate inconvenience. You paid for mass-transit, not private jet. Suck it.

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