Why Do You Still Have to Put Your Cell Phone Down in an Airplane?

“If we can figure out a way to let people do it, then why not?” said Craig Mitnick, an aerospace engineer with Boeing, about the long-discussed but never made a reality offering to cell phone users onboard aircraft.

Mitnick, speaking Monday at a security conference in Long Beach, California, supported one of the more common arguments for allowing cell phone use, saying it would improve overall safety.

“There are plenty of pilots who do speak on the cell phone and have no problem,” Mitnick said. He noted that because all of the applicable Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations are in English, it’s easy for a pilot to send a text or call another pilot while on a flight.

However, Major General Richard McKeon, an aviation safety expert at the U.S. Air Force, spoke in opposition to the concept, saying that even an airline pilot who could do so safely was not going to want to get into position to use it when a flight was in danger, especially because there’s no guarantee a poor pilot could stick to a plan on such a life-or-death matter.

“There’s no way that our fliers are safe to do that,” he said.

Other aviation and cybersecurity experts are divided on the topic, which has been an ongoing problem since the first flight above the Wright Brothers’ home state of Dayton, Ohio, nearly a century ago.

For example, according to Current Intelligence founder Steve McCurry, cell phone use on airplanes has been a perennial proposal in the global aviation and cybersecurity communities, but it’s never gone anywhere.

“There’s been some lobbying for the airlines, and I have heard from experts on both sides about the pros and cons,” McCurry said. “What’s happening right now is the airlines are part of the debate, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good way to get the conversation started.”

McCurry added that getting cell phone providers and airplane manufacturers on board as regulators is the big issue. Although cell phone use would not be permitted in an aircraft without the ITU’s approval, any airline would need to pass a special license application to allow passengers to use a cell phone without prior authorization.

“I don’t see it happening right away,” he said. “But if the airlines and operators don’t work together on it, it may very well happen.”

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