Airlines have always been very strict on the use of cell phones in-flight due to the belief that they will affect sensitive aircraft systems. Before Airplane Mode was invented and made common, passengers had to shut down their phones entirely for the duration of the flight. But of course, that was also before smartphones became popular and people read newspaper and magazines or talked to their neighbor. Nowadays people are generally allowed to use their electronics only on Airplane Mode and after the aircraft has reached 10,000 feet, although specific regulations vary and airlines are nevertheless very hesitant on the use of electronics. I just flew on China Eastern from Kunming to Hong Kong, and they didn’t passengers look at their phones during cruise or wear headphones during takeoff and landing, which was definitely quite extreme. While airlines say cellular signals can compromise the safety of the aircraft, research has disproven this claim, leading people to wonder why airlines are still reluctant to allow mobile phones.
Attentiveness during takeoff and landing
One very plausible and common circulated belief is that airlines want passengers to be attentive and undistracted during takeoff and landing phases in case an evacuation is needed. Planes are at their most vulnerable stage taking off and landing, and cabin crew definitely wouldn’t want passengers absorbed in their electronics during these phases, which is most likely why in-flight entertainment is turned on after takeoff and turned off well before landing.
Disruptance to others
Many people may not realize this, but by allowing the use of cell phones in-flight, airlines may be socially opening a can of worms. People already get annoyed if they’re seated next to someone talking loudly on the phone in a café or on the subway. What if the same thing happens with two people seated next to each other on a cramped airplane cabin for several hours? Surely that’s an argument or a headache just waiting to happen.
Use of in-flight payphones
I personally don’t believe in this one, however people speculate that airlines are prohibiting cell phone usage to force people into using their expensive in-flight payphones to earn an extra couple of bucks. This theory is unlikely for two reasons. First of all, rarely do people actually use the in-flight phones, and the extra revenue that airlines receive from having them is minimal and not worth the amount of effort required to restrict the use of personal phones. Second, airlines would benefit far greater from the increased popularity from travellers should they allow the use of mobile phones in-flight.
The prohibition of mobile phones and cellular networking in-flight originated as a safety issue, and airlines have for the most part continued it mainly for tradition and to be on the safe side. Commercial aviation is dangerous in itself and can easily go wrong in many different ways. The only reason why it’s had a remarkable safety record is because of how cautious the industry has always been. No guesstimating fuel quantity, no half-ass maintenance regimes, and no risk taking of any sort. While evidence supporting the theory that cellular signals affect aircraft safety is essentially non-existent or very shaky, airlines simply aren’t willing to take the risk at this time, although I would expect this to change in the next several years. Some carriers, such as Virgin Atlantic, are already relaxing their regulations and permitting the use of phones for text and calls in-flight, so I imagine it won’t be long before cellular usage in-flight will be an industry standard.
For further reading:
Background information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phones_on_aircraft
Quick explanation of Airplane Mode: http://www.howtogeek.com/194421/what-does-airplane-mode-do-and-is-it-really-necessary/
Interesting article on phones versus F/A’s: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/why-flight-attendants-hate-your-cell-phone/381372/
Summary of the current situation: https://www.puretalkusa.com/blog/the-truth-about-cell-phones-on-airplanes/