The Debunker: Does Using A Mobile Phone On A Plane Pose A Safety Risk?

by Ken Jennings

Let’s have a moment of silence for one of the co-founders of modern flight: Wilbur Wright passed on to the great baggage claim in the sky exactly one hundred years ago this month. Poor Wilbur may have succumbed to typhus in 1912, but his invention, we will be reminded this month, lives on. May is also the month we commemorate paper airplanes (May 26 is National Paper Airplane Day!) and the beginning of the summer travel season (Memorial Day is the busiest flying weekend of the year so far). So come fly with Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings as he debunks some commonly held—but thoroughly untrue—beliefs about airplanes and aviation. He’ll make sure your historical facts are in the upright and locked position, and that your scientific understanding is securely stowed in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you.

Airplane Myth #2: Cell Phones Are Illegal on Planes Because They’re a Safety Threat.

When the flight attendant tells you to shut off your game of Words with Friends or Draw Something in anticipation of takeoff, do you do your patriotic duty and power down, or do you throw a hissy-fit like Alec Baldwin did when he was kicked off a flight at LAX last year? In general, I’d agree that “not acting like Alec Baldwin” is a pretty good rule of thumb when it comes to social etiquette, but in this case it doesn’t matter much either way.


There is considerable disagreement on just how much effect, if any, small personal electronics devices can have on a big commercial jet designed to withstand things like lightning storms. There is a blanket U.S. government prohibition on in-flight cell phone use, but it has nothing to do with airline avionics or safety. It’s an FCC regulation, not an FAA one. Cell phone towers, you see, are engineered for stationary customers. A plane-full of talkers and texters zooming from cell to cell in quick succession as they fly overhead could seriously hamstring a mobile network.

There’s not a lot of evidence for cell phones causing glitches in airline avionics, mostly because the airlines aren’t really incentivized to change their no-electronics policies (no profit in it) so the effects rarely get tested. Airlines occasionally report technical problems that, they say, magically cleared up when a flight attendant tracked down a rogue phone-user, but Boeing technicians have never been able to duplicate even one. Even the no-phones lobby admits that the systems in post-1984 planes are well shielded from electronic interference, but claim that wear and tear could theoretically degrade that shielding over time. But, again, the operative word is “theoretically.” If you decide to call Mom during landing, you’ll cause a lot more havoc at the phone company than you will in the cockpit.

Quick Quiz: What president was the first to fly in a plane designated “Air Force One,” which was equipped even back then with its own radio-telephone?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.