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Cell Phones in the Cockpit

by Greg Reigel 1. March 2005 00:00
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Cellular Telephones And PDA's In The Cockpit

Can you use a cellular telephone in a private, general aviation aircraft? What about personal digital assistants ("PDA's")? MP3 players? CD players? Laptop computers? With the proliferation of cellular telephones and portable electronic devices ("PED's"), these questions are more and more frequent. This article will give you some answers to these questions based upon the law as it stands today. However, as you are reading this article, keep in mind that it will focus on private, general aviation operations operated under FAR Part 91. Although I may briefly address FAR Part 121 airline operations or FAR Part 135 charter operations, I will not focus on them specifically.

Portable Electronic Devices

PED's such as PDA's, laptop computers, CD players and MP3 players etc. are addressed in 14 CFR 91.21. 14 CFR 91.21(a) provides that "no person may operate, nor may any operator or pilot in command of an aircraft allow the operation of, any portable electronic device on any of the following U.S.-registered civil aircraft: (1) Aircraft operated by a holder of an air carrier operating certificate or an operating certificate; or (2) Any other aircraft while it is operated under IFR". The FAA issued this rule back when VOR's were the primary navigation aid because the FAA was concerned that PED's may interfere with the VOR receivers and navigation/communication equipment aboard aircraft. Although 14 CFR 91.21(a) appears to be a blanket exclusion, 14 CFR 91.21(b) does contain some exceptions including portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers, electric shavers, or the catch-all exception: "Any other portable electronic device that the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used."

This catch-all exception gives the operator of the aircraft, who is usually the pilot in command under FAR Part 91 operations, the authority to determine what PED's may be used on his or her aircraft. Fortunately, the FAA provides some additional guidance to be used in making this determination. AC 92.21-1A, Use of Portable Electronic Devices contains information and guidance to assist operators and pilots to comply with FAR 91.21. As with most advisory circulars, the AC provides one means, but not the only means of compliance.

The AC states that the operator and/or pilot in command must make a determination regarding the non-interference and safety of each PED to be operated in the aircraft. This determination can be as simple as turning each PED on at cruise altitude and noting whether any interference occurs. If interference is experienced, the conditions of operation at the time of the interference should be noted and the PED should be turned off. The AC also suggests that the operator and/or pilot in command can obtain professional assistance, presumably from a reputable avionics shop, to make the non-interference determination. If PED's are to be allowed on the aircraft, AC 92.21-1A recommends establishing specific procedures to govern the use of PED's such as passenger briefings, determining non-interference, limitations on use etc.

Cellular Telephones

If you have flown on an airline, you should be familiar with the section of the flight attendant's pre-flight briefing in which you are instructed to turn off your cellular telephone. This instruction is consistent with federal law promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC"). 47 CFR 22.925 states that all cellular telephones carried aboard an aircraft must be turned off before the aircraft leaves the ground. Although the FAA has not expressly prohibited the use of cellular telephones in flight, it has indicated its support of the FCC regulation in AC 92.21-1A. It is important to note that 47 CFR 22.925 does not prevent the use of cellular telephones while the aircraft is on the ground. As long as the wheels are still touching the ground, the regulation does not prevent you from using your cellular telephone (Note: Airline or charter operator procedures may be more restrictive). However, even if the operator and/or pilot in command allows the use of cellular telephones on the ground, he or she is still required to make a non-interference determination before they may be used. Also, procedures similar to those relating to PED's should be adopted to govern the use of cellular telephones on the ground.

Cellular telephones definitely add convenience when you want to obtain an IFR clearance from flight service prior to departing from an uncontrolled airport without a FSS RCO or if you can't otherwise reach FSS via radio. Simply call from your cellular telephone either before or after your run-up and obtain your clearance and void time. This is a definite improvement over the old days when you sometimes had to rush through pre-flight and run-up to make sure you met your void time. Calling for a ride after landing is also more convenient: You can call while taxiing to the ramp. Additionally, with the current lobbying and the FCC's reconsideration of the ban on using cellular telephones in flight, you may also legally be able to use a cellular telephone in flight in the not too distant future.


In addition to the convenience, not to mention the pleasure, of flying an aircraft, portable technology can provide additional convenience and pleasure. With the proper planning and investigation, PED's and cellular telephones can be used to make flying more convenient and more enjoyable without sacrificing safety.

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Greg Reigel


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