Why Cell Reception Is So Bad Right after Boarding the Plane
Our shared anxieties about flight were very different, not so long ago.
It’s September 2019. I had just settled into seat 2D, and my seatmate and I were swiping away at our phones frantically. The signal was so sluggish that Twitter feeds wouldn’t load, and email struggled to come through. Bars of service blinked between one bar and nothing.
Cellular reception is uniformly awful on airliners parked at the gate. But why? My own answers were hypothetical and vaguely conspiratorial: Maybe interference from the wiring or circuitry in the aircraft fuselage plays a part. Or perhaps a magic box in the cockpit somehow interrupts service to dissuade in-flight use. I wondered if a governing body like the Federal Aviation Administration might require airports to dampen the cell signals, or if some carriers were impacted more than others.
After that flight I asked three commercial pilots (two from Delta, one from British Airways), and they all corroborated my hunch that cell reception is particularly bad at this odd juncture pre- and postflight—for pilots as well as for passengers. “There are certain areas of ramps and jetways where our ACARS uplinks are sketchy for the same reason,” one of them, Mark Werkema, said. ACARS stands for aircraft communications addressing and reporting system; airplanes use it to communicate with one another and with control towers. It would seem like a safety concern, too, if bad coverage affects important communications sent or received by the crew.
Jon Brittingham, a technical pilot on the Airbus A319/320/321 program, explained the causes to me in greater detail. Older aircraft, like the McDonnel Douglas MD-90, don’t have the same electronic-systems shielding to protect cabin equipment from third-party signals that more modern airliners, like the current Airbuses, have. In fact, this shielding is most dense around the cabin—thus confirming my pilot contacts’ shared agreement about poor reception within the cockpit. (This same fact can also cause cell reception in first class seats to be the worst in the plane, when parked at the gate.)
Airports are giant swaths of empty space, where large vehicles exit and enter the sky. That makes them poor candidates for cellular-antenna towers. Towers might grace the airport’s edges, but the expanse of airfields, and the distance to the terminal, makes coverage a stretch. To make up for it, airports use distributed antennae systems (DAS): small, targeted cellular access points (some barely bigger than smoke detectors) that work particularly well in indoor, controlled spaces. A DAS provider explains the particular challenge of airports this way: “These spaces are often challenging topologies that have high ceilings, wide-open areas, or are located in harsh environments that present a challenge to designing and deploying reliable wireless service.”1 Harsh environments—what a nice euphemism for the sound and fury of terminals.
It works, indoors at least. The Denver International Airport, for instance, has been lauded for its use of DAS networks to provide superior service to passengers in the terminal and throughout the concourses—even better than customers are used to at home in the suburbs.2 But once you’re sitting on the plane, the signal problems begin. As Wired reported several years ago, it may have to do with conflicting signals caused by the plethora of the small cellular antennae inside the terminal and the cell towers beyond the airfield.3 (There’s also onboard Wi-Fi, further complicating things. That’s another issue, but one more reason why, as an old Delta ad put it, we’ve come to “expect the internet” when flying.4)
Basically, on the plane your phone can’t decide which antenna to connect to, and this confusion contributes to the slow service. It doesn’t help that on any given plane, anywhere from fifty to three hundred passengers might be clambering for a signal as soon as they are seated or when the plane touches down. Pair this with certain aircraft models, like the Boeing 787, whose structural materials may impede cell signals, and you get a perfect storm of poor service.5
A coverage rift erupts deepest between the terminal’s interiors and the surrounding cellular landscape. On the airplane, you’re neither inside the airport nor clearly outside it—you’re in a bizarre netherworld, where cell signals are muddled.
Bad service on parked planes becomes a useful parable for thinking about the overlapping promises of mobile technology and of commercial flight. I want to think that I’m at the center of the travel experience: it’s my journey, my life, my social media posts. But complex infrastructure and collective behaviors make the whole enterprise chug along. In order to provide maximum service to users, the carriers oversupply the airport concourses, but at the expense of the expansive tarmac areas that fall just out of reception zone for the terminal antennae, which are also just a bit too far from nearby cell towers. It’s a compromise carried out in order to sustain a larger (if always imperfect) arrangement.
When cell signals go dark on the plane after boarding, it’s a low-grade reminder of how air travel is always woven into people’s lives on the ground. Landing passengers need to communicate with family, friends, or drivers arriving for pick-up; urgent work tasks may need attending to, and an ongoing “searching” icon can be infuriating. It seems like these are two separate realms and they should connect more discretely, yet also seamlessly. But the truth is, flight is always messily entangled with infrastructural tendrils.
That’s an anxiety that pervades airports, places where connections of all kinds get made and broken. There’s a reason why the China Philharmonic Orchestra staged a flash performance at Beijing Capital International Airport in February 2019: It was sure to be captured by phone and shared online, thanks to saturated DAS antennae.6 The autumn 2019 Hong Kong airport protests were effective because they interrupted the traffic (and thus economic) flows around the huge site—but just as much because these interruptions were disseminated via smartphones.7 When Newark airport was suddenly and terrifyingly evacuated in September 2019, the chaotic scene was uncanny not just for what it was (or wasn’t) but for how it quickly dominated social media feeds far beyond the New York region.8 Live shooters and terrorists preoccupy Americans’ minds, and the airport was ready-made for an incident of this type. Airport happenings are primed to spread online.
Everyone is on edge at the airport. Will I make my flight? Am I a bad parent for traveling to make a living? Can I afford this vacation? Do I need this expensive bottled water, this crummy sandwich? Where’s my ID? These agglomerated worries make it even more irritating when something seemingly simple, like mobile coverage, breaks down. But maybe the uncertainty causes most of the anxiety. Flyers are stressed about what they cannot control. In the face of ignorance, any knowledge is a comfort: You’re definitely going to miss your connection, or, your bag is confirmed loaded on the plane.
When the specter of bad coverage takes your pre- or postflight calls and app updates out of commission, take it as another new certainty. There’s nothing you can do but wait. It’s not about you anymore, but an accident of infrastructure. Flyers might take this moment as a chance to feel humility rather than self-centered frustration. Look around, appreciate the complexity of the system at work. Appreciate that it works as well as it does, most of the time. Instead of searching for a cell signal (or an email, or an Instagram update), look for a signal of a different kind. Everything’s going to be okay—and, for now, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida had a theory about structures.9 For any given structure to work, it has to have wiggle room—room for free play, where the pieces that compose the structure can slip a little. Think of how buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, or how a steering wheel has just that wee bit of give each way as you hold it in your hands while driving. Or how concrete bridges use metal expansion joints to adjust to changes in air temperature. Cell signals at the gate are another example of this principle, where a system attempting to maximize connectivity needs some disruption, as well.
And no system is totally enclosed. There’s always something extra, a remainder, which falls outside of or lingers beyond the structure. That’s part of the play. Reception will be fine in the airport, or out on the road—it’s just in a temporary abyss, right here. And it’s not simply because you’re inside the plane or outside the airport. It’s because inside and outside are never neat and tidy distinctions. No wall can perfectly separate two countries.10 The Amazon rainforest isn’t definitively bound by its supposed geographic borders.11 Residential air conditioners don’t just regulate temperature indoors, but also send emissions into the atmosphere.12 And airplanes on the tarmac and mobile devices in our palms are not only working within their own respective systems but are entangled with each other—and everything else.
Commercial air travel and mobile communications, awkwardly coexisting at the moment before or just after a flight, become an example through which we might better understand human beings as a superorganism, or a species whose combined activities over time form intricate patterns that span far beyond any one single member of the group. Like ant colonies or coral reefs: millions of smaller units that cumulatively create something vaster and utterly indistinguishable from the individuals.
Picture flight route maps or cell coverage charts: crisscrossing lines, networks and grids. Such diagrams show that what humans are part of is never simply local, nor just abstractly global. Each connection made or missed, each signal attained or dropped, is part of a much larger structure—and the necessary free play involved therein. For it all to work, there are going to be places where it fails, where slippage can occur. This is terrifying to think of with respect to flight; less so, if more aggravating, to think about in relation to cell service. Together, though, they illuminate this massive process and the complex systems we’re all a part of.
The Hong Kong airport protesters were described as a swarm.13 The Newark airport evacuation exposed the hive structure of the terminal and how easily it can be upset—like poking a wasp’s nest. When cell signals go dark on the plane after boarding, it’s a low-grade reminder of how air travel is a superorganism phenomenon.
In light of all this, passengers might be more patient with bad service at the gate. Flyers might take this frustrating moment as a chance to feel humility rather than self-centered annoyance. There might be better things to do in this moment after sitting down on the plane. Look around, appreciate the complexity of the system at work. Appreciate that it functions as well as it does, most of the time. Appreciate all the free play that makes the structure work. Appreciate being part of a superorganism swarming around the globe, searching for signals. After all, it could be worse. Flight could become even trickier and less frequent. Cellular disruptions could come in other forms, forms far more grave.