These days being without access to the internet on a phone using a cellular data service is worse than losing a leg to some people. Panic sets in as they may not be able to see what their friends have been doing on Facebook for a few hours.
That is rather sad, but internet addiction is becoming a recognized mental health problem with definable internet withdrawal symptoms. This is particularly true for the younger generation who often seem to be constantly on their phones.
So can you use mobile data on a plane to keep in touch while you are flying?
Does data work on a plane – yes or no?
When you are on a plane you will be required to either turn your cell phone off completely or turn on airplane mode (flight mode).
When in airplane mode your phone turns off any connection to your cellular network so you cannot make phone calls, send text messages (sms) or access your cellar data while you are in the air.
Why can’t you use cellular data on a plane?
There are a number of reasons why you must put mobile phones in flight mode so that they cannot send and receive using a cellular connection.
Firstly, it is believed that it could interfere with the aircraft’s electronics and navigation systems. This would obviously be a potential safety issue.
The cruising height of modern aircraft is almost 7 miles high. A cell phone would probably not be able to pick up a data connection from any of the cell phone towers you were flying over.
In addition, the cellular antennae on cell towers point towards the ground, not up in the air, so the signal at cruising altitude would be very weak.
Since you would be flying enclosed in an aluminum box the potential for receiving cellular signals is very low too.
Since you would be traveling at around 10 miles per minute, even if your phone could connect to a cell phone tower, it would be out of range in no time at all so the phone would be constantly trying to connect to another one.
Disruption to cellular network
If everyone flying on aircraft across the country were trying to connect to a cellphone network and changing to different cell phone towers every few seconds this could cause disruption to the cellular network.
Flying over oceans
If you were flying over an ocean there would be no cell phone towers to connect to anyway to make cellular calls or use cellular data.
Is it actually illegal to use mobile data on a plane?
Actually, it is illegal.
This is because in 1991 the Federal Communications Commission banned cell phones from accessing the cell phone networks when flying, which is why airplane mode became a feature on cell phones after that. Prior to airplane mode being available phones had to be completely turned off.
The Federal Aviation Administration endorses the FCC ruling and enforces it.
This FAA portable electronic devices infographic shows what you can use a cell phone in flight for. FAA portable electronic devices.
Some airlines allow you to use data
There are now a number of airlines that have equipped their aircraft with a service called AeroMobile which allows passengers to access their data while onboard the aircraft.
Although international roaming charges may apply, it could still work out cheaper than paying for an airline’s wifi service – particularly if you do not need to stream or use high data usage apps.
The current list of airlines that offer this on at least some of their aircraft are:
- Aer Lingus
- Air Belgium
- Asiana Airlines
- Biman Bangladesh Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- Etihad Airways
- Eva Air
- ITA Airways
- Kuwait Airways
- Malaysia Airlines
- SAS Scandinavian Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- TAP Air Portugal
- Turkish Airlines
- Uzbekistan Airways
What happens if you forget to turn on airplane mode?
As it is illegal not to have your phone switched off or in flight mode then it could lead to prosecution and/or being banned from flying with the airline again (if it was discovered of course).
This would certainly be true if you deliberately tried to make a voice call or access cellular data on a plane if spotted by the flight crew.
As stated above it could have safety implications due to potential interference with the aircraft’s navigation systems and also potentially disrupt the cell network (although one phone is unlikely to do this).
If your phone was constantly trying to make a cellular data connection during the flight then the phone’s battery would drain much quicker than if it was in flight mode.
In-flight wifi is the alternative to cellular data
Most airlines now offer in-flight wifi services. Some airlines charge to access the plane’s wi-fi using wireless devices while others offer wi-fi free of charge, at least to some extent.
Using an airline’s wi-fi connection you can use messaging apps such as WhatsApp on a plane as well as send and receive emails, browse the internet, listen to music and even stream videos or watch Netflix.
Onboard wi-fi will still not give you the ability to text on a plane using the sms system (although a few aircraft are now being fitted with systems to allow this). You can use messaging apps though.
Can you make voice calls using Wi-Fi?
You will not be able to make voice calls. Even using an app such as WhatsApp to make voice calls or to take part in a video conference is not permitted.
This is because having passengers making voice calls throughout the aircraft would be very annoying for other passengers. Having traveled on many trains where passengers near me were constantly talking loudly on their phones I a totally in favor of this ban and hope it continues.
If you want to learn more about this phenomenon then the following two links will give more details.
Data on a plane FAQs
Does 4G work on a plane?
Since your phone must be in flight mode on a plane you will not be able to access 4G (neither can you get 3G or 5G) to get mobile data. You will need to access the aircraft’s wi-fi if it is available.
Will the plane crash if I don’t turn on airplane mode?
Although not having your mobile devices in his mode is unlikely to make a plane crash, it could potentially interfere with some electronic systems on board.
Can I use my phone on a plane 2022?
Although you can use your phone on a plane to connect to the airline’s wifi if it is available you cannot connect to the cellphone network as this is illegal. This means you cannot send sms text messages or make voice calls. Using the onboard internet connection you can check social media
Is it illegal to FaceTime on a plane?
You cannot make any kind of voice services on a plane, either using voice only apps, video conferencing or video apps such as Facetime, Skype etc.
I have been traveling around the world by air since the early 70s and living overseas too. I worked for British Airways for a number of years and I am also a private pilot. About Me