Risks of Cell Phones on Airplanes

Everyone—except those who like peace and quiet—thinks it’s a good idea to allow cell phone calls on airplanes, and are working out the technical details. But the U.S. government is worried that terrorists might make telephone calls from airplanes.

If the mobile phone ban were lifted, law enforcement authorities worry an attacker could use the device to coordinate with accomplices on the ground, on another flight or seated elsewhere on the same plane.

If mobile phone calls are to be allowed during flights, the law enforcement agencies urged that users be required to register their location on a plane before placing a call and that officials have fast access to call identification data.

“There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft,” the agencies said.

This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

And, of course, security countermeasures that force the attackers to make a minor modification in their tactics aren’t very good trade-offs. Banning cell phones on airplanes only makes sense if the terrorists are planning to use cell phones on airplanes, and will give up and not bother with their attack because they can’t. If their plan doesn’t involve air-to-ground communications, or if it doesn’t involve air travel at all, then the security measure is a waste. And even worse, we denied ourselves all the good uses of the technology in the process.

Security officials are also worried that personal phone use could increase the risk that remotely-controlled bomb will be used to down an airliner. But they acknowledged simple radio-controlled explosive devices have been used in the past on planes and the first line of defence was security checks at airports.

Still, they said that “the departments believe that the new possibilities generated by airborne passenger connectivity must be recognized.”

That last sentence got it right. New possibilities, both good and bad.

Posted on June 8, 2005 at 2:40 PM45 Comments


Davi Ottenheimer June 8, 2005 3:00 PM

Nice work Bruce! I agree wholeheartedly. The success of security should never be measured strictly on the basis of prevention! The common-sense approach to security (which you call trade-offs) measures the number of things that have transpired successfully, with the least harm possible.

Michael Ash June 8, 2005 3:14 PM

Does nobody in government remember how many lives were saved on one fine September morning because the passengers on a certain flight ignored the ban on cell phones? If technological measures had been in place to actively prevent calls, that day would have been even worse. Even in the current fight-the-last-war climate, this makes no sense.

Saar Drimer June 8, 2005 3:20 PM

“Everyone — except those who like peace and quiet — thinks it’s a good idea to allow cell phone calls on airplanes”

Can you imagine how further unpleasant air travel would be with people yakking away with people not even present! Yikes! It’s a bad idea for social reasons.
I’d be more concerned about spontaneous, non-terrorist acts of violence 🙂

Scate June 8, 2005 3:21 PM

Jeez, if cell phones are so dangerous that they need to be off when the plane is taking off or landing then they shouldn’t be allowed on planes at all–so I can only conclude that they can’t be that dangerous.

Second, terrorists don’t need cell phones to communicate on a plane! There are any number of ways they could communicate on a plane and the cell phone issue is a big red herring.

I, personally, like the quiet time on a plane and think banning them for that reason is enough.

Shawn Lauriat June 8, 2005 3:32 PM

Wait…so terrorists won’t use the phones that several airlines already have embedded in the seat in front of them?

And they won’t go into a restroom and ignore a ban?

Confused…should I write my congressman and push for a ban on paved roads, printing presses and oxygen?

Eric Hacker June 8, 2005 3:34 PM

Actually there is not really any new passenger connectivity. Many of the bigger jets have Verizon Air phones or something similar on them. The rates are even getting cheap too.

Also, mobile phones can often be used on planes already, depending on the location of the plane. Last I knew, the terrorists were not too concerned about having permission for their activities.

Now, the social aspects are something to consider.

I also think, like other personal electronics, cell phones should be off and stowed during takeoff and landing for safety reasons.

Joe Buck June 8, 2005 3:54 PM

Terrorists can pick up one of those AirFone thingies, stick in their credit cards, and pay the extortionate rate and make whatever phone call they need to make today. So these fears are nonsense.

That said, I’m horrified at the idea of being trapped on an international flight with dozens of loud yakkers shouting at their cell phones.

Steve Wildstrom June 8, 2005 4:19 PM

Wi-Fi is available now, using Boeing’s satellite-based Connexion system, on some Lufthansa flgihts and I think a few other European and Asian carriers. And, of course, if you can have Wi-Fi, you can have VoIP. The latency is probably pretty bad, though probably not much worse than on an old-fashioned satellite voice call.

Fred F. June 8, 2005 5:11 PM

Unless they fly a jamming device or not allow any electronics on board like they do with knives, etc. How are they going to keep people bent on breaking the law from doing it? I know that one can set-up an ad-hoc wi-fi network with two laptops with integrated wireless, how are they going to stop that? No more laptops on planes? This borders right there with silly.

Anonymous June 8, 2005 5:35 PM

One thing about cell phones and other electronic devices is that they do emit some stray singles that can mess with the airplane’s communication and (more importantly) navigation equipment.

Sky-Ho June 8, 2005 6:22 PM

“One thing about cell phones and other electronic devices is that they do emit some stray singles that can mess with the airplane’s communication and (more importantly) navigation equipment.”

Actually, Anon. that would only occur if the aircraft avionics were not properly shielded/grounded or installed.

I would suggest that one might have bigger problems, in that case.

I have used analog/digital cellphones, bluetooth enabled cell phones and laptops as well as wireless laptops for years in cockpits of Boeing, Airbus as well as Fokker aircraft with no aircraft avionics issues.

I echo the comments of “expensive” phone access, I mean, on a suicide operation, why would one really care about the expense?

If someone wishes to break rules, why concern oneself with inconsequential bs?

Nick June 8, 2005 7:08 PM

Amazing – use the new keyword — terrorist — and you can do anything you want, no matter how rediculous the idea may have sounded before bringing that one word into the argument.

If we all lived our lives based entirely on threats that MAY happen we’d be safely confined behind the locked doors of bomb shelters, growing our own food.

How long can people put up with all of these unreasonable restrictions on their lives until someone finally says “Hey, that was years ago, nothing major like that has happened since, we can get on with our lives now”. Before or after they’ve lost the right to say that, I wonder?

Ari Heikkinen June 8, 2005 7:10 PM

Why would terrorists need cell phones to detonate their bombs when timers or perhaps some other signals from the environment could be used to do the triggering just fine? And if they’re onboard the plane for suicide bombimg they surely can just press the button manually and just in case have that timer as a backup. And as they likely have already mastered a plan why’d they give away their location and other information by using cell phones (I’m sure every call onboard will be monitored for the sake of WOT).

If anything, ban smoking first.

Joachim June 9, 2005 5:48 AM


… And now it seems that the Patriot Act will be expanded to provide more powers at the cost of citizen rights. All, naturally in the fight against terrorism:


My favourite change is not that the FBI can grant themselves subpoenas, but that the subpoena handed to you can be deemed a secret, so that you must comply, but cannot talk to anybody about it.´

Chilling effect indeed.

pilgrim June 9, 2005 6:04 AM

“We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales.”

We don’t ban governments because they make wars and making peoples lives worse with stupid laws. We don’t ban police because of their abuses.

But maybe in this case we should.

Technology can be used for dual purposes, depending on people. The things in themselves have choice of good or evil. It all depends on the people.

History shows the very bad record of governments solving human problems. They don’t, but they mess things up and make them worse. We should definitely ban all governments by taking care of our lifes and society ourselves. The track record of governments is just too bad.

Clive Robinson June 9, 2005 8:16 AM


If you read a post I made some time back I mentioned the UK Regulation of Investegoratry Powers Act (RIPA).

In it I mentioned that the UK had a law that ment that you had to hand over your crypto keys and not tell anybody about it. If you chose not to hand over the keys you could get 2 years effectivly without a fair trial (as nobody could be told).

So I guess the US is playing catch up on the Idea…

Sombody then posted that, that part of the act was being ripped out on the 26th of last month.

The question is will it take the US 5 years to get rid of the same stupid idea?

Jim Duncan June 9, 2005 8:38 AM

It seems one of the greatest obstacles to getting security done right is all the stupidity committed in the name of “security.”

Mark Walker June 9, 2005 8:38 AM

There really aren’t any new bad possibilities. The bad guys don’t follow the rules.

We have to remember these bad guys attack, and die with their victims, as a direct result of their religious beliefs. Rules banning cellphone use on airplanes are irrelevant to them.

Anonymous June 9, 2005 11:15 AM

From Michael Ash above:
“Does nobody in government remember how many lives were saved on one fine September morning because the passengers on a certain flight ignored the ban on cell phones? If technological measures had been in place to actively prevent calls, that day would have been even worse. Even in the current fight-the-last-war climate, this makes no sense.”

Worth quoting again. Yeah — lives were saved by cell phone calls midair in the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania!

Anonymous June 9, 2005 12:12 PM

Wow, I didn’t realize that simply banning cellphone use on airplanes would stop terrorists from using them. With this logic, why don’t we just ban terrorism on airplanes…that’ll stop ’em!

Gildas June 9, 2005 12:32 PM

Regulation is just regulation. How about regulation without control?
Few months ago, My friend took a flight an forget to turn his mobile phone off. He just realized it on arrival.

If terrorist want to use mobile phone on flight, they don’t need to comply with the regulation.

mjk June 9, 2005 1:47 PM

How about this. We let the people vote while getting on the airplane whether or not to allow cell phone usage. Majority gets its way. This is good because the people whose lives are at most risk are the ones directly involved with weighing the horror of horrors of not being able to talk on a cell phone during flight vs feeling safer.

Michael Chermside June 9, 2005 2:51 PM

And please remember the FOURTH 9-11 plane. The one that (regretably) crashed into a field in Pennsylvania rather than into some DC landmark largely BECAUSE of the heroic efforts of passengers who understood what was at stake. They understood it because they had used their cell phones.

Steve Lodin June 9, 2005 4:19 PM

For those that want cellphones banned for the peace and quiet aspects, there are easy solutions for this. Anyone riding in a central European train recently will know there are “quiet” sections on train cars where cellphone use is highly discouraged.

David June 9, 2005 5:50 PM

And I thought cell phones were banned because of communications issues with the navigation system …. It’s just more fear and concern over lost revenue potential than anything else.

Harald Koch June 20, 2005 11:10 AM

“We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales.”

Actually, we do; just only in environments where people’s rights are already being squashed: schools.

Polly Philla September 3, 2005 3:20 PM

And i thought that the people on one of the hijacked airplanes 9/11 used their mobile phones throughout the hijacking.
This technology has just been invented and being debated if should be allowed ??

Maboni April 5, 2006 7:27 AM

i would like some more information on why cell phones should be switched off in airplanes. i would like you guys to explore the reasons while listing them.

Maboni April 5, 2006 7:29 AM

i would like some more information on why cell phones should be switched off in airplanes. i would like you guys to explore the reasons while listing them.

sugarbat May 19, 2006 9:48 AM

Saar says: “Can you imagine how further unpleasant air travel would be with people yakking away with people not even present! Yikes! It’s a bad idea for social reasons.”

This is specious logic. If I’m talking on a cell phone on a plane or talking to someone in the seat next to me, I’m still just one person talking. If every single person on the plane were talking on his/her cellphone, the total number of people talking within your earshot (assuming none of these cellphones are on speaker setting) will not exceed the number of passengers on the plane. Granted, it’s pretty rare that every single person on the plane is talking at once (thank God), but there is not now, as far as I know, a limit on the number of people who can talk at one time on an airplane.

I hate these arguments that say cellphones should not be used on public transportation because then “it would be too loud.” If I’m on a bus, talking to my deaf granny sitting in the seat next to me, I’m likely to be far louder than the lady across from us, talking softly into her cellphone to her husband about the awesome sex they plan on having when she gets home from work.

And I love how people who hate loud-talkers tend to forget (or at least I hardly ever hear the scenario I’m about to describe mentioned) that they are allowed (hell, I encourage it) to request such talkers to lower their voices. How many of you who are annoyed by loud talking bother to do this at all, as a Plan A solution? Each of us, as members of a community, are well within the boundaries of good manners and common sense to politely request a person on an airline (or any other public space from which there is no immediate and/or reasonable egress) speaking “too loudly” into a phone, or to his 3-year-old child, or to himself (bless the mark), to bring the tone down a little. Most people, in my experience, barring only groups of teenagers in a movie theater, will happily make efforts to comply with your request. Most people don’t want to offend or annoy, especially if they’re approached in a friendly, non-antagonistic fashion.

And finally, I want to say that I don’t, myself, talk on my cellphone much on the publics, because I like to keep my conversations private, and/or because the background noise of other people talking (on cellphones or otherwise) is loud enough to make talking on a phone a vain and frustrating endeavor. I resent most bans on such use, though, based on my arguments, above. It would make more sense to ban “loudness,” the way they used to do just outside of hospitals, or ban teenagers on the bus, because they like to yell, and also they like to eat from giant bags of french fries without offering me any, ever.

Bradly April 22, 2007 4:27 PM

I think that lifting the ban would remove the airline’s monopoly on in-flight communications (i.e. the $10+ per min. cost of airline phones).
Why is it that the navigation system in my car isn’t affected by cellular signals, but those on air planes are? What happened to that FCC Part-15 rule, shouldn’t cellular phones comply with that?
Also, if someone were talking too loudly on their phone, press the button above your head with the picture of a woman in a dress and tell the flight attend they’re disturbing you.

Fly by night June 27, 2007 12:56 PM

It’s not about terrorism, just radio frequency interference, like the flight where the plane’s gyros were deviating. Pilot told everyone to turn off radios. Second time around, said he’d have the flight attendants confiscate them. Then the interference stopped. Unknown who won the football game. Hopefully the expensive Verizon phones on backs of seats are well-behaved. Experiments by a few airlines to allow cellphones seem to be just for text messaging and e-mail. Otherwise, below 10,000 feet, no devices are allowed. Above 10,000, still no cellphones at all, the whole flight. Some airlines allow them while taxiing to gate, some NOT. As for Flight 93 (9/11), dudes, we’re not talking about when everyone’s dying anyway. Quantum leaps to banning cars or paved roads, printing presses, or to drug dealers, or “nekkid” or “straight jackets” or “shoelace terrorism” and such hyperbole are just stupid. Laptops are on their way out too, the way the batteries have already exploded at LAX, and on a tour plane in Kake, Alaska, and on boardroom tables, and other planes. And the UPS plane that barely landed at Philly at midnight (lithium-ion batteries in cargo), burned. Crew was lucky to be able to land.

Ray Thackeray June 27, 2007 3:25 PM

If I get some jabbering, loud-voiced bimbo blathering on and on about her boyfriend or hair stylist for half an hour (and it happens in other places), I’m going to be pretty obnoxious.

If I have to endure a one-sided conversation by some fat banker bawling at his staff about some deal that can’t wait until he’s on the ground, and who won’t listen to pleas of “please speak more quietly”, there will be violence on the plane.

The use of Blackberries, Treos and texting on cellphones – great.

Interminable ignorant loudmouth phone use – BAD.


Scott July 22, 2007 12:31 AM

They weren’t thinking about allowing people to use their cell phones to talk to ground towers. That barely works.

They were talking about putting a mini-cell site on the plane like they do in Europe. So.. the airline does still get their cut. If they weren’t making money off it, they would have no interest in lifting the ban.

In Europe if there are too many complaints the FA’s can switch the mini tower to text only mode, so the PAX can only text, no voice. Obviously they wouldn’t have that ability were the cell phones talking to the ground.

I’ve read dozens of scientific studies that tried to match up any cell phone to a piece of nav equipment if interfered with and never found one. I’ll have to go read that IEEE one now.

I fly a lot, too much. And in the United States and Europe it is serioiusly unpleanst (still nice in Asia). From the TSA people treating each person like a terrorist, barking at me, throwing out my water, and going through a routine that does nothing to improve safety, followed by FA’s yelling at people to put their seat up, turn off the cell phone, make your 3 year old not talk, don’t use the bathroom, without providing an ounce of service or a smile, I’d be thrilled to take away just one thing that they can yell at me for.

I think the problem with putting a mini-tower in a US airplane is that it has to talk GSM 850, GSM 900, GSM 1900, AMPS, iDen (Nextel), Sprint’s CDMA, Verizon CDMA, etc. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East they have a standard that everyone uses (GSM/UMTS), which is also why your cell phone works so much better there.

On an unrelated note… I took the Acela from Boston to NYC for the first time last week as an experiment. Felt like heaven!!! I highly recommend it. You are actually treated as if you are a customer. It was extremely nice.

Scott July 22, 2007 1:05 AM

Okay, I read the IEEE article and didn’t get it. It said it was written by a communications expert but it didn’t have any data, facts, references, or much science of any kind.

In fact, it seemed mostly to be constructed out of superstition and weirdness.

Their most solid piece of evidence, one crew thought they noticed a correspondence between a navigation error and someone’s CD player? That’s pretty voo-doo. I had a neighbor that told me my fax machine was interfering with his TV. He called me up and I said “Now its off. Now its on. Now its off??? He insisted the picture was better when it was off. I told him I would leave it off and at the end of the week he said his picture had been better all week. Only thing… I never turned it off. Ever.

It seems so very unlikely to me that a GPS antenna mounted on the outside of a plane, locked into 5 satellites is going to get screwed up by a cell phone on the inside, using a different protocol, on a different frequency.

I guess I’d like to see their actual math. How much is the cell phones signal being attenuated by the air inside the cabin and the plane’s shell? (They can measure the strength at the GPS antenna).

How good is the signal rejection on the GPS electronics? Etc.

Cyrus October 7, 2007 10:54 PM

I’m researching this topic…

Very soon, European and Australasian airlines will allow full in-flight use of cell phones on aircraft. The FCC and FAA, in USA, still disallow cell phones.

Let’s put aside the phone rage aspect because the systems to be implemented will be controlled by the flight crew: a flick of a switch, and the captain can isolate the plane from all cell phone use. So, if there’s any excessive anti-social behavior, everybody on the plane will be ‘punished’. Good psychology, but lousy for customer satisfaction.

Cell phones definitely cause interference, especially to GPS systems for landing. Given that electronics are imperfect, there’s no doubt that, at some point, a GPS system will be disrupted. Do you want to be on that plane when that happens?

The third aspect concerns the probability a cell phone could be used as a remote trigger to an onboard bomb. Granted, that probability is not precisely quantifiable, but it’s there – or will be when the those airlines give the go-ahead later this year or early 2008.
Will there be a 1% chance of disaster? A 0.5% chance? Calculating that probability requires a beautiful mind and an expert in game theory, neither of which apply to me.

My question is: who wants to be the first to find out, in real terms? Tell you what – you first…

Oh, yeah – it’s a red herring to say that other types of bomb triggers can be used already. The issue is this: why make it so much easier for a terrorist to do his job? Moreover, think about this: for over twenty years, phone companies have been getting away with selling an unsafe device. You’ll complain about your car, your medicine, your kid’s toys when they’re unsafe and get them fixed, right? But you let the phone companies get away with it. Big time…

And, finally, it’s one thing to blow up a train or bus with bomb and a cellphone trigger – only some die. On a plane at 30000 feet , everybody dies. Every time…

Evan February 18, 2008 8:27 PM

Cell phone usage on planes is a ridiculous idea. It would be about as pleasant as someone kicking the back of your seat the whole time, or sitting next to a screaming toddler. Ppl can wait a couple of hours to use a cell phone, get a grip.

Brandon May 5, 2009 5:14 AM

I already use voip on all flights with wi-fi. So does my travel companion. We just look at each other and call whomever. Guess what? None of you chicken littles has complained (or even noticed) yet. Long live phweet.

Prashant S Akerkar May 29, 2012 9:33 AM

I agree with Bruce since some aircraft
carriers are allowing and some are not allowing to carry the cellphone
on board ?.

Do you feel more adequate testing is required for the same to confirm the potential to disrupt cell phone services on the ground. ?.

If adequate testing is already done to confirm that there is no electromagnetic interference to disrupt cell phone services on the ground, then cellphones should be allowed to be carried on board.

As correctly mentioned by Bruce, “The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off”.

I agree with Bruce’s views.

Thanks & Regards,
Prashant S Akerkar

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