The Real Reason You Need to Turn Off Your Cell Phone on Airplanes

Newsflash: Keeping your cell phone on during flights won’t make the plane crash. It won’t make the world explode. It won’t cause danger to you or any bystanders. And still it has been prohibited since the early 1990s.

This could change now.

From all I can tell, it looks like the days of cell phone-free flights are numbered: The FCC is considering changing its rules to permit the use of cell phones (and other wireless-data devices) during airline flights. According to the article, there are even companies offering cell service in some parts of the world already.

What a bummer.

The evidence that safety wasn’t the main issue has been pretty convincing for quite some time now. I always figured the real reason there were no cell phones allowed on planes (and wi-fi is still not a standard) was a laudable conspiracy among high-ranking members of the international flight safety agencies. I took them to be sane people who wanted to protect us from our lower selves (and the lower selves of our seat neighbors).

The real reason we need to turn off our phones on planes is the same why we maintain libraries even when no-one reads books anymore: We have a deep-rooted desire for sanctuaries of silence.

In a world of constant noise, chatter, and beeping email inboxes, this desire becomes a necessity.

The real reason we need to turn off our phones on planes is that we need to shut up for a while. To be alone with our thoughts. Our thoughts, and a plastic-wrapped egg-and-tuna sandwich.


  1. Honestly, I’d keep that prohibition in place. Just imagine all those people bored, stressed and forced to sit in place for more than an hour… suddenly getting a way to mentally escape by making noise. What’s wrong with bringig a book?

    1. That’s exactly what I’m wondering, too! But there are soooo many “important” calls to make! ;)

  2. 110% agree! Too bad not many people in the world value silence, personal reflection, and meditation. Everywhere you go people have their faces buried in some sort of device or have their ears plugged into an iPod — rendering them completely oblivious to the world that surrounds them. This is ironic because they think they are the opposite of oblivious by constantly filling every spare second with useless information that will never serve a purpose in their lives. (*This is a good time to refer back to one of your older posts – one of my favorites! – about where is our fucking bell? We need to be reminded that many of us allow the present to escape by the noise that goes on inside our heads. Whether it be negative or positive thoughts causing the noise in our heads, they will influence the way we feel about the very moment before us. I agree that sometimes it might be a good idea to live in positive noise, but when it’s negative noise that is influencing our present, we need a fucking bell!) The question many people fail to ask anymore is – who cares about all of this crap they feed us online? I for one don’t care about 99.9999% of it. I don’t have a Smartphone, and I am proud of that. I find it amusing when people look at me like I have 3 heads when I say, “I don’t want a Smartphone. I like to be disconnected.”

    Very nice article that the world should think more about! This could be the prequel to “The Terminator” where machines are ruling the world!

    Truly yours,

    1. Thanks a lot, Ed!

      “Too bad not many people in the world value silence, personal reflection, and meditation.” – I’m not even sure this is the case. I feel like younger people seldom get the option to experience these things anymore. Sure, many kids may choose to use an iPod over enjoying silence, but is that because they wouldn’t value it or because they never really experienced it in the first place?

      To give a similar example, let’s take opera. As a teenager, I had never attended one. So I did not, indeed, value it. Now that I’m a bit older and have had the chance to go to the opera a few times, I’m *still* not a big opera guy. But at the same time I’ll freely admit that it’s an astonishingly beautiful artform and I definitely do value it – but only because I got to experience it in the first place.

      I’m afraid that properly experiencing moments of silence in a large Western city these days can be a hard thing to do.

      Concerning the other aspect you mention – our tendency of “filling every spare second with useless information”: It’s so ironic indeed. The Gods must be laughing when they see us!

      So yes, we still need that bell! (And not another smartphone. Don’t have one either, despite living part of my life in the online world! Even though this may change at some point, it’s good to prove that it’s still possible! ;)

  3. I am glad to know that the one or two times I’ve accidentally left on a device during a flight, I wasn’t putting my fellow passengers at risk for a fireball.

    As an author and librarian, though, I wonder where these empty “quiet” libraries are. Seriously. Please give me a quiet library — the last time I was in one was 13 years ago at a private 4-year university. Nobody reads books? Our statistics show they must be checking them out to carry around. Or so it goes in my part of the world — other parts of the world surely do live differently.

    Personally I’ve always thought the library was for more than books. It’s for scholarship, archiving our collective history, and lifelong education. It’s for story-time to help children become literate, tutoring to assist students into college (or a trade or whatever they choose to pursue), online access for those who live on the “wrong” side of the digital divide, and access to databases and statistics that small business owners can’t afford singly but which we, as a community, can help to provide.

    I work in an academic library now, but my background is public libraries. I’m from the Pacific Northwest. Even in other parts of America people value libraries differently than we do, so surely around the world this is also true.

    In a world where not everyone can afford a cellular device or a plane flight, some people do still use the library. And whether on an eReader or online, whether a traditional book or a new creation online, our libraries are embracing books in all their forms.

    I would love a sanctuary of silence.

    But I wouldn’t refer anyone to “the library” around here for peace or quiet!

    1. I rarely comment on blog posts, so I forgot to add why I wrote about yours – the attitude that libraries are only for books and quiet is commonly parroted by people who make budgets. This is deeply disturbing. When you close libraries, you close off avenues for education and equality and justice. Starbucks provides wifi but it doesn’t provide computers, and not everyone can afford a $4 coffee. Please don’t say that all libraries are only for books and quiet. Please recognize all of the vulnerable populations who may be affected if an influential person reads your post, and agrees with your analogy, and then cancels funding for their local library in the next year because people who want books can just shop on Amazon and people who want quiet can just go to a park (or buy earplugs, or whatever).

      1. Wendy, excuse my snarky comment about libraries. I almost took it out, but somehow couldn’t get me to do it, as it seemed to fit so well into the overall cultural pessimism of the post (which I like to make fun of myself at times).

        I’m sorry to see that this snarky comment destroyed the post for you, though. I’m personally a library lover, and while I believe that things like online access to statistics or tutoring for students can easily be done elsewhere (I’m not arguing that it exclusively *should*, mind you!), I completely agree that the librray covers many important functions that are crucial for human culture. Just as I didn’t argue that plane flights are only needed to have a time of silence, though, I wouldn’t want to imply anything similar for libraries!

        As for quiet libraries? There are a few good ones in any major university town here in Germany. The largest library will normally be quite busy/noisy, but just go to the department of Protestant Theology or Medieval Philosophy and you’re covered. Interestingly, even in Colombia I could enjoy the silence in the libraries – the country famous for having people make hour-long cellphone conversations even when in the movies.

        1. Thanks for replying! We have a problem with this attitude towards libraries in the United States, so it’s an important issue for me even when it’s said as a joke.

          And you’re right – even though tutoring *could* take place elsewhere, that’s the same as saying a basketball game could take place somewhere other than a gym court or cooking can take place outside a kitchen. All statements are true. The question for libraries is, were does “free” lifelong learning and education go and who pays for it? In the UK where they shut down whole districts, nobody else stepped up to fill that role. So right now, where I live, the kitchen/court is still libraries. I would love a future where everyone has internet and technology at home to do their own self-paced learning at any time, and the library is truly an unnecessary building. Maybe in another few years!

  4. There needs to be a minimum distance between your phone and the towers, and coverage has to be contiguous. So over ocean, over flyover country, and above a certain altitude even where there are towers on the ground, your phone will not maintain a connection. And even in the best case, handoffs are tricky due to the speed at which the airplane is traveling. So an on-plane service is required, broadcasting 3G and data wi-if signals to passengers, and then sending them to the ground, most likely via satellite.

    1. Thanks for the tech background, Michelle! I could live with people doing their emails on a plane, but I hope we won’t have endless chatter. Much prefer the occasional crying kid. ;)

  5. But still, even as early as 2004 when I first went on a plane, you could make a call through their system–if you paid. I don’t know the reasons for the no-phones rule, but there’s definitely some merit to allowing phones in the smartphone era. People can read on their smartphones, or if they’re into other things–games, their own music, just their media.

    1. On most flights I’ve been on so far, you could use your phone in airplane mode after take-off. So I think that part is covered. When it comes to getting internet access, I still don’t deem it that important, but as I said to Michelle, this is probably going to happen anyway and I can live with it! ;)

  6. I completely agree with you! It’s not much to carry a real book and have some peace and quiet for a change. I’m not looking forward to flying if they lift the ban – think of all the mindless conversations we will have to listen too!
    Bummer indeed!

    1. Maybe some companies will offer rest/silence areas on their planes? I’d definitely be up for that!

  7. Wow! Really? No, there are many reported incidents with instruments going crazy all around the world because of passengers using mobile phones not set in fly mode. The silence-devoted conspiracy is just nonsense.

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