The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bars the use of all transmitting devices in the off chance that transmissions could interfere with a plane’s navigation and communications equipment and cause system malfunctions [PDF]. It’s true that these concerns are a bit overblown, but the FAA likes to err on the side of caution. (Can you blame them?)
Initially, the reason authorities didn’t want you calling your mom or dialing into a work meeting had less to do with crashing your plane and more to do with crashing the cell phone network. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had determined that mid-flight calls have a direct impact on cell phone service on the ground. That’s because cell phones are primarily designed for callers who are firmly planted on land, communicating with a single, nearby tower.
If you’re speeding through the sky at 550 mph, your phone will connect with multiple towers and eat up valuable space on their circuits, wreaking havoc on service. A 2007 plan to lift the ban was strongly opposed by cell carriers for this reason.
In 2013, passengers gained the ability to use their smartphones and other electronic devices as long as they remain on airplane mode, which prevents them from connecting to the cellular network. People could connect to in-flight Wi-Fi and theoretically make voice or video calls that way, but even that remains prohibited for reasons involving more than just safety.
The FCC scuttled a plan in 2017 to consider letting passengers make calls once the plane gained at least 10,000 feet of altitude after it faced strong opposition. Pilots, flight attendants, and various members of the general public were against it—partially because many don’t want to endure an hours-long flight filled with competing phone calls. As Ajit Pai, then the FCC chairman, put it, “taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet.”
A version of this story originally ran in 2009; it has been updated for 2023.