It’s the usual routine: You get on a plane, sit in your seat, and then text frantically, trying to get one last message before you hear the flight attendant’s announcement to switch your portable electronic device to airplane mode.
For now, switching to airplane mode is a federal requirement on US domestic flights. You must disable wireless transmission functions such as voice and cellular data.
Here’s the answer: Cell phones are designed to transmit a signal strong enough to cover great distances. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which originally imposed the ban in the early 1990s, the radio frequencies emitted by these and other electronic devices can interfere with cell tower networks on land.
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What Happens If You Forget To Turn On Airplane Mode?
If you don’t switch to airplane mode then your cellular-enabled phone or tablet will keep trying to establish a connection with every cell tower on the ground that the plane passes through.
Not only will the signal cause interference with aircraft navigation, but the effort it takes for your phone to continuously scan and jump towers at flying speed will also drain your battery and still not maintain a constant signal.
“Cellular doesn’t work well with aircraft speeds and altitudes so needed an alternative off-aircraft connectivity solution to make it work,” said John Wade, EVP and Chief Operating Officer at Gogo, a technology company that provides information. flight connectivity and wireless entertainment services for Delta, United and others.
“The use of Wi-Fi takes advantage of off-board connectivity, enabling better connection and functionality.”
Accessing In-Flight Wi-Fi
Almost all airlines today offer in-flight Wi-Fi, which is possible because it’s satellite-based and doesn’t rely on cell tower connections. Almost every domestic airline offers in-flight Wi-Fi but there is only one airline that offers it for free, and that is a customer favorite, JetBlue.
Through this network, you can surf online, read email, check social media, or chat using Internet-based messaging applications such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. While you can’t now text with SMS over cellular, you can use Wi-Fi.
And while you can’t now make in-flight voice calls over cellular, you can use Wi-Fi. But US airlines will not allow it. All domestic carriers prohibit VoIP calls although many international carriers do not. And what happened to the plane when it entered US airspace? The technology that allows in-flight calls is turned off.
Today, there is wider bandwidth and improved satellite technology on most airlines around the world, with Qantas and JetBlue among the first to adopt.
In February 2017, Qantas introduced its new in-flight Wi-Fi network using improved 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. In the years that followed, more airlines came up with gateway-to-gate connectivity such as Southwest, Norwegian, and JetBlue (which also supported streaming services).
And if the airline offers in-flight Wi-Fi, they’re more likely to also allow you to stream video and other media in-flight, but you’ll be charged. Similar to the tiered Wi-Fi plans you’d find in hotels, you now see passengers have the option to choose a specific Wi-Fi speed for their in-flight plan. The only exception to this is when the airline offers in-flight entertainment on your own device through its app, which can be streamed for free.
Whether your flight is an hour or ten, the best way to pass the time is to watch a pre-downloaded movie, audiobook or music with noise-canceling headphones.
The Future of Mobile In Aviation
More than a decade ago the European Commission started allowing in-flight mobile service across the EU. Some airlines offer onboard voice, data, and SMS calls, while others only allow data and texting.
Technically, the service requires each aircraft to be equipped with its own mobile base station, a network control unit that prevents onboard telephone signals from reaching the ground-based network and a satellite link to the terrestrial telephone network.
The technology has been used successfully in Europe and around the world without incident, according to the FCC. It is also available in the United States. Some of Gogo’s business airline customers are already using it, but none of the tech company’s 16 commercial airline customers have requested it.
Over the past few years, the FCC has garnered consumer and technical input as it considers proposed new rules that would give airlines the freedom to allow cellular service if planes are equipped with the proper onboard equipment. However, it finally decided to reject the proposal in 2020 after strong opposition from flight crew, passengers, and members of Congress.
Do Americans Even Want Voice Calls?
A 2016 Gogo Global Traveler study evaluated passenger interest in using and willingness to pay for voice calls on the air. It finds wide variation by region, with the greatest interest among Asian and Latin American markets. Forty-two percent of global passengers are interested in using voice services, compared to only 23 percent in the United States. A 2018 study conducted by Turkish Airlines showed little or no change of opinion, with 89% of US respondents opposing in-flight voice calls.
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Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to note that the in-flight mobile data usage ban came from the FCC, not the FAA, and to clarify the reasons behind this ban. This article was written in 2017 and has been updated with the latest information.
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