Pilots Using Cellphones Inflight - Is It a Safety Risk?


In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission banned the use of any cellphones on commercial flights because of the fear of interfering with the aircraft’s avionics, communications, navigation. While this impact of this concern continues to be widely debated, the FCC still maintains restrictions on cellphones use for phoning and texting via the cellular network.

The more significant concern is that pilots using cellphones and personal electronics during flight could be a significant source of distraction.

With the advent of the multifunctional smartphone electronic devices, the Federal Aviation has modified the original restriction to allow limited permission for airline passengers, not pilots, to use their phones and other electronic devices. Commercial airlines currently require passengers to switch all cellphones and portable electronic devices to “Airplane Mode” during takeoff while in the air until after touch down.

Airplane mode allows access to all other functions, including the aircraft’s WiFi system, but does not permit cellular connections.

Are Pilots Restricted from Making Cellphone Calls in Flight?

Operators of land-based vehicles demonstrate daily the tragic results of phoning and texting while driving. Although the traffic density is not the same at high altitude, the dangers of a loss of focus by pilots are highlighted when professional, and amateur airplane pilots become distracted.

IN 2009, a Northwest flight from San Diego to Minneapolis overshot the destination by 150 miles. Subsequent testimony reported that both pilots were engaged with their personal computers and not responding to messages as the plane continued to fly past the destination. Only when a flight attendant inquired about the ETA did the pilots correct the course and land at the designated airport.

Not surprisingly, the FAA revoked those pilots’ certificates.

Current Restrictions on Airline Pilots Using Personal Electronic Devices

The question that affects most of us is whether airline pilots can use cellphones and electronic devices

In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a ruling (Part 121) that restricts airline pilots from using any personal electronic devices during any part of the flight. The regulation permits pilots to use company-issued electronic devices for only the tasks that relate to the specific flight.

And, restrictions apply even to the use of these devices. Phone calls are not allowed.

For example, some airlines issue company-owned devices to record data and information that was previously entered by hand. Company-owned hand-held electronic devices eliminate the cumbersome paperwork that each flight previously generated.

Flight manuals have even been digitized for viewing on a company-issued electronic tablet.

The 2014 mandate is intended to support the original “sterile cockpit” concept that prevents airline pilots from engaging in distracting and non-essential activities at any time.

Can General Aviation and Private Pilots Use Cellphones While in the Air?

While the FCC still prohibits the use of cellphones by pilots while flying, the FAA does not explicitly prohibit this activity. In general aviation and, as mentioned, airlines, companies can prohibit the use of cellphones and personal electronics by pilots during any phase of the flight.

For private pilots, personal discretion is strongly advised. If the call or text is not essential, most experienced pilots recommend that the phone be turned off. Texting and phoning can be distracting, particularly when descending for landing while the concentration of other aircraft increases.

In summary, the best answer is yes, pilots using a cell phone or personal electronic device while in flight is a safety risk.

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