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I am reading some contradictory statements regarding the use of a personal satellite phone/Internet connection in a plane. E.g.:

https://www.bluecosmo.com/satellite-phones

Hardened structures, buildings, mountains, and heavy tree cover can all negatively affect your signal. Pilots often leave a satellite phone or an Iridium GO! on the dashboard of their plane’s cockpit to receive a signal.

https://www.outfittersatellite.com/5-Common-Myths-about-Satellite-Phones_b_19.html:

You can absolutely use a satellite phone indoors, whether in a building, car, boat, airplane, or any other enclosed space as long as you install an unobstructed antenna on the outside of the vehicle or structure. Outfitter Satellite carries kits for in-buildingin-vehiclein-aircraft, and marine satellite phones. The idea of always needing to step outside or lean dangerously out a car window to use your satellite phone is incorrect.

The first statement claims that the device might be used within the plane whereas the second one mention it is required to have an antenna outside the plane, which confuses me.

Can I use a personal satellite phone/Internet connection as a passenger in a plane? By "can", I mean both legally and technically (= will it have a usable connection, assuming that I cannot plant an antenna on the outside of the plane prior to the flight).

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Technical Aspects

The key part of the quote about pilots leaving the sat phone on the dash is the 'dash' part. The dash is under a glass surface, which is almost completely transparent to RF signals and has a nice, wide view of the sky, where the satellites are. This will not translate well to the cabin, where the fuselage is not made of glass and is decidedly not transparent to RF signals. And where the only windows are relatively narrow and point sideways, not up. On older aircraft models, the fuselage is made of aluminum, which is quite conductive and, thus, will block your signal. While newer models of aircraft fuselages are often made of lighter carbon composite materials instead, it turns out that they still have to surround it with a conductive mesh for lightning safety, so those probably won't work well, either. Basically, the fuselage acts as a big Faraday cage.

This is why all of the antennas for aircraft systems, including the in-flight Wi-Fi, are located on the outside of the fuselage, typically inside some type of aerodynamic, but RF-transparent fairing mounted to either the bottom or top of the fuselage depending on the sort of network it needs to connect to. Antennas for terrestrial networks will generally be located on the bottom and antennas for satellite networks will generally be located on the top because airlines usually like to operate their aircraft in such a manner that the ground is more-or-less down, while the sky is more-or-less up.

If you're sitting at a window seat and can hold the sat phone's antenna up to the window, then it's possible that you could get a reasonable connection. I've done that with GPS receivers in a cell phone, for example, and could get a usable signal, even despite how weak the GPS signals are. However, if you're in the middle section of a widebody, you can probably forget about it.

Legal Aspects

The legal question can vary dramatically depending on where you are and each jurisdiction often has quirky rules that often don't make a lot of intuitive sense.

For example, in India, the personal or commercial use of a satellite phone is illegal, regardless of whether or not you're on an airplane.

Another quirky example is the United States. The use of cellular radio signals is banned while in flight in the United States. Another odd quirk is that this rule technically applies even to the crew, not just passengers, and even on private aircraft. Oh, and the FCC itself has said that the rule is outdated since at least 2004, but it's still on the books and still enforced with regard to airline passengers (though generally ignored for private pilots.) However, that ban applies solely to cellular radios and so sat phones are perfectly legal.

However, using a sat phone (or anything) to actually make a voice call is another matter. Some airlines (such as Delta) explicitly ban making any sort of voice call during flight simply because most passengers don't want to be disturbed by others making calls during flight and flight attendants don't want to deal with the ensuing conflicts and disruptions. And, yet other airlines (such as United) ban any sort of radio transmitter, except for the specifically approved ones, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Until relatively recently, there were several Asian countries (including China and South Korea) that banned the use of any sort of wireless transmission for the duration of flight (including even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.) I think most of these have been repealed over the last several years, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are some still hanging on out there.

In short, the only general answer for knowing whether you would be allowed to use a sat phone for a given flight would be to check directly with the carrier you intend to fly. And, for international flights, ask specifically about the route you're interested in if the airline doesn't have a general ban on them for all of their flights. And remember that an airline's rules with regard to in-flight conduct typically carry some degree of force of law almost everywhere in the world, so intentionally violating them isn't a good idea. Similarly, even if the airline's rules don't specifically ban something, if a crew member tells you to stop, then stop.

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    airlines usually like to operate their aircraft in such a manner that the ground is more-or-less down, while the sky is more-or-less up. as a passanger I very much agree with the airlines here. – Yanick Salzmann Mar 29 at 9:38
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    From a practical standpoint the view from a plane window to a LEO satellite constellation is very limited. These satellites move past every few minutes and require quite a wide angle view of the sky to maintain line of sight to the satellites so that the connection can switch from one satellite to the next.. I have had problems maintaining an Iridium connection with an antenna mounted on the outside wall of a building with a view of almost half of the sky. – uɐɪ Mar 29 at 10:11
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    @YanickSalzmann But Maverick doesn't. – reirab Mar 29 at 14:35
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    @reirab well he does live in the Danger zone – Peter M Mar 29 at 15:40
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    “sat phones are perfectly legal”—not according to the documentation that came with my Iridium device. – WGroleau Mar 29 at 17:16
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Others have addressed the question from the point of view of whether you can (technically), and whether you can (legally), use your satellite phone during your flight. However there is one other aspect you should consider, and that is whether you should use your satellite phone during your flight.

I, and I think many others, see such travel time as an opportunity to be quiet and welcome being temporarily uncontactable. You don't state the purposes in which you would need to use your satellite phone, but even if you can, you should first ask yourself (for example): "will I be disturbing my fellow passengers?", "is this call really that urgent that it cannot wait until we are back on the ground?", or "am I really going to get fired for being uncontactable for a couple of hours?"

Of course, there may be emergency situations, like: you are the president and war has broken out, or your partner's baby has arrived and you need to rebook your return to go back home as quickly as possible, but not much else comes to mind.

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  • I expect most presidents can use a satellite phone on flights, and babies don't usually come as a complete surprise so the second example is bad planning. – gerrit Mar 29 at 15:12
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    @gerrit, babies do sometimes come early, up to 3 months early is not that uncommon and many of those babies survive their early entry, more than 3 months is mostly more of an emergency. I think it is a valid point. – Willeke Mar 29 at 16:34
  • Wait, you expect me to think of others? What kind of world do you think we live in? Oh, a polite one where people think of others and not just of their own selfish needs, what a novel concept. – FreeMan Mar 29 at 17:24
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Both your quotes only address the technical aspect of it, and make it clear you need to be in a position where the signal from the satellites is not obstructed by the structure of the plane, which is nearly impossible in most planes.

A window seat is unlikely to make much of a difference. On most planes, windows are small, often very badly placed (quite low), and offer a very limited view of the sky. Considering that the satellites involved move quite quickly, the limited field of view makes it very difficult to have a satellite in sight (and actually pointing towards you) quite. Also it would be interesting to check the bands used by the various sat phone systems, it’s quite possible the wavelength actually exceeds the size of the windows!

It is possible that more recent planes (787, 350) which use composite materials behave differently in that respect, but I don’t know the properties of the composite materials involved, and I don’t know if the main structure of the plane uses them.

In terms of regulations, I’m pretty sure this isn’t allowed by many or most countries and/or airlines.

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    Most Sat phones operate in the L-band: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. - wavelength is between 15cm and 30cm (and both Iridium and Inmarsat are right in the middle). So wavelength would indeed be a concern. – abligh Mar 29 at 6:52
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Of course not.

Radio transmitters/receivers are specifically forbidden UNLESS a specific device on the exception list (mainly phones & tablets). I can't count the number of times I've heard "everything with a transmit or receive function must be turned off"

The airline is likely to enforce this, since they want to make money out of you using their WIFI instead.

For United, for example, see: https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/inflight/devices.html

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  • Thanks, do you have any idea regarding the technical feasibility? – Franck Dernoncourt Mar 28 at 12:18
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    Antenna placement is crucial here. If you have a window seat with line of sight to the nearest satellite, you may get ok connectivity. The rest going to be hit or miss and also depend a lot on fuselage material: aluminum vs composite. – Hilmar Mar 28 at 12:23
  • @Hilmar it also depends if you are using a geostationary or low earth orbit based sat phone system. But I doubt in a plane you could deploy an antenna suitable for a geostationary based system (or even see the satellite), and I doubt from a single passenger window seat you would get decent handover for a LEO based system – Peter M Mar 28 at 23:12
  • My GPS receivers have always worked when against the window, and sometimes worked in my lap or seatback pocket when I had a window seat. I never tried the Iridium, since it also transmits. – WGroleau Mar 29 at 17:18

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