Cell Signal In The Air: How It Works

With airlines loosening up restrictions on cell phones what are the possibilities for cell signals in flight?

The flight from Malaysia Airlines #370 that went missing back on March 8, 2014 has raised questions about how cell phones work on airplanes and whether there should be circumstances when cell phones should be able to do so. There were reports that a cell tower in Penang, detected the Malaysian Airlines’ co-pilot’s cell phone searching for service shortly before the flight vanished.

At What Elevation Can a Cellphone Work?

Despite airline personnel requesting that all phones either be turned off or put in airplane mode, cell phones can continue to work while in the air but only while in the range of a cellular tower. Cellular towers are built to rise hundreds of feet into the air but eventually as the plane continues to move upward it moves out of contact range. The maximum distance which a phone can still make calls and send texts varies on the type of tower and transmitter but a plane would need to be no more than 10,000 feet in the air to receive a signal.

What Else Affects Cellular Signal Other Than Altitude?

As a plane passes over rural areas with small populations, cellular towers are few and far between. Over an ocean, there’s none.

Speed can also make maintaining a cellular signal difficult as your phone switches from tower to tower. Planes would need to be traveling 155 miles or less for phones within cell tower range to make and receive calls.

Recent changes by the Federal Aviation Association have loosened their rules regarding cellular devices on planes. Many airlines are now allowing the use of tablets and smartphones during take-off and landing, provided they’re in airplane mode. The FAA is also considering allowing cell phones on flights in case of emergency. As of now, the following airlines allow cell phone use while in flight:

Aer Lingus – since September 2013

Aeroflot – since January 2013

Air France – since May 2013

All Nippon Airways – since summer 2013

Azerbaijan Airlines – since January 2012

British Airways – since July 2013

Cebu Pacific Air – since January 2013

Egyptair – since September 2010

Emirates – since March 2008

Etihad – since November 2012

Garuda – since January 2014

Hong Kong Airlines

KLM – since May 2013

Lufthansa – from February 2014

Oman Air

Philippine Airlines

Qantas – since March 2012

Qatar Airways – since May 2010

Royal Jordanian


SAS – since December 2012

Singapore Airlines – since September 2013

TAM Airlines

TAP Portugal

Transaero – since July 2012

Virgin Atlantic – since December 2011

In order for cellphones to operate while in flight, airplanes would need to be equipped with either picocells or cellular signal boosters which would operate through cell phone towers that would be set up to work within airplanes or via satellite.

Should the day come where cell phones can be used on most airline flights, SureCall will have the boosters needed to make this happen. To learn more, go to www.surecall.com.

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