Could Airplane Cell Service Come to the U.S.? Here's What Experts Say
A major rule change in Europe has some wondering if the no-phone policy could disappear stateside.
Today's world is so dependent on smartphones and tablets that it can feel like it's impossible to escape them—with the notable exception of being on an aircraft. For decades, planes have provided the one space reliably free from the constant barrage of phone calls and text messages—our devices even have a special mode to prepare them for takeoff. But as times change and technology improves, could the long-standing no-phone rule disappear? Read on to find out what experts have to say about airplane cell service potentially coming to the U.S.
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A rule change means that phone calls will soon be allowed on flights in Europe.
You can trace the relatively silent ambience on flights to a single no-phone rule issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1991 that stands to this day. However, critics of the policy—initially put in place due to potential interference with sensitive aircraft instruments—have argued that new technology makes it perfectly safe to dial away after takeoff.
In 2013, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler even began to put together a proposal repealing the rule before it was officially struck down in 2017, according to Ars Technica.
But things are shaping up differently abroad. Last month, the European Commission ruled airlines would be allowed to provide 5G cell service to passengers on flights to make phone calls and connect to high-speed data beginning next year, The Washington Post reported.
"5G will enable innovative services for people and growth opportunities for European companies," Thierry Breton, the E.U.'s commissioner for the internal market, said while announcing the change. "The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity."
The decision has sparked debate as to whether regulators in the U.S. will follow suit and allow cell service and phone calls on planes—even as airlines warn of significant potential risks with the technology. But what do experts think the outcome will be?
One pilot argues the ban is more about the flight experience than safety issues.
While the debate over safety concerns may rage on, some industry experts say the actual function of the ban has changed since it was implemented. However, that doesn't mean they don't still consider it to be an important policy.
"This is no longer a technological issue so much as one of social acceptability," Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and host of AskThePilot.com, tells Best Life. "Frankly, I'm a little surprised that airlines would entertain the idea."
"Flying is already stressful, and so much of that stress is caused by noise: Noisy airports, crying babies, and the endless bombardment of public address announcements. Allowing wireless conversation during flight would worsen this cacophony significantly," Smith says. "I can't think of anything more hellish than sitting in a crowded cabin while three dozen people are yammering away on their phones."
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Others argue that the change appears unpopular among regulators.
Aside from keeping the cabin calm, experts argue that the failed attempts to repeal the policy show there's very little likelihood it will be going away in the near future.
"I would say using phones on airplanes isn't going to happen in the U.S. any time soon," says Duke Armitage, an airline pilot with 15 years of experience and founder of Aviamonde. "Both the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] and FCC have long prohibited phone use because of the potential interference with aircraft communication and navigation systems. The FCC even rejected a proposal to implement a technology that would have allowed inflight cellular service without interfering with aircraft equipment as late as 2020."
That doesn't mean the change is entirely beyond the realm of possibility, though. "I don't know of any accident where the main or secondary cause was cellphone use," Armitage says. "However, the potential is definitely there, although the majority of airplanes today are 'hardened,'" which means "surrounding aircraft electronics with a specific material that prevents interference from portable electronic devices."
Airlines and telecommunications companies need to work together for the change to happen.
The rollout of 5G has left some confusion about the potential risks it could pose to air traffic. One expert says that this consideration means there could potentially come a day when you can, in fact, make a call on a domestic U.S. flight.
"Bottom line is that we need to know that the 5G frequencies will absolutely not interfere with our navigation abilities," Captain Laura Einsetler, a pilot for a major U.S. airline and author of CaptainLaura.com, tells Best Life.
"I am assuming that Europe has a different range they use for their 5G so there are no signals anywhere near the range we use for navigation. If we keep working together—meaning the aviation and cellular industry—we can ensure there is no overlap in any way," she says. "Safety always has to be the primary focus, so if this is guaranteed and there are no issues, we can then turn to the usage and etiquette factors onboard flights."