Preface: If a flight attendent or pilot asks you to do something like shut off your phone, you must comply. If you refuse, then the issue gets shifted to you being a threat to security. And then, you’ll get physically restrained and be taken away by police. Your plane may get rerouted in midflight. Etcetera. No cell phone regulation needed.
The answer to whether you can use your phone on the plane? Actually, it is completely up to the pilot. You are supposed to get an advance notification. However, even the method of notification is up to the pilot. It could be any way she or he deems appropriate.
Here is what the FAA officially says about use of portable electronic devices (“PEDs”) such as mobile phones on planes. The 91.21-1B – Use of Portable Electronic Devices Aboard Aircraft page on the FAA’s website has a pdf of an Advisory Circular on this issue. Talk about bureauspeak! It’s a tricky-to-understand document. And, it isn’t the regulation itself, but merely a discussion or clarification of it. Well, not really a clarification since it isn’t very clear.
The real regulation is elsewhere in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 91, section 91.21, which says that PEDs are prohibited unless the pilot says when you can use them. On that pdf mentioned above, check out 7.a. on page 3: “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently prohibits the use of cell phones while airborne.” Hmm, pretty clear. And and 7.b. on page 4 states, “A cell phone will not be authorized for use while the aircraft is being taxied for departure after leaving the gate.” So if you are stuck on the tarmac for a couple of hours, hopefully your brought a book or a pillow. But, is that just advice from the FCC for the pilot? Not clear. And elsewhere, it states that you can use your cell phone after landing while waiting for a gate.
In case you run across the FAA’s Flying Safe page, don’t rely on it too much. Not only does it contradict the Advisory Circular 91.21-1B mentioned above, but also because it is not clearly written. It states, “The FCC and FAA ban cell phones for airborne use because its signals could interfere with critical aircraft instruments.” What are “cell phones for airborne use”? Are those different from cell phones for land use? Perhaps they mean “using cell phones in a way that transmits radio frequencies”. With that language, you could safely write a note on your phone or work on your tablet without interfering with the airplane’s operation.
The page continues with, “Laptops and other personal electronic devices (PEDs) such as hand-held computer games and tape or CD players are also restricted to use above 10,000 feet owing to concerns they could interfere with aircraft instrumentation[.]” When is the last time you saw someone using a tape or CD player? And tape player?? LOL! Tape players went out in the 1990s. Looks like that statement has not been updated for a decade or two. The sentence is even missing a period at the end. How carefully was this policy written? Not very, apparently.
The FAA apparently realizes how confusing and out-of-date the regulation is. Nine months ago in August 2012, it announced plans to plan for a new plan. So, don’t hold your breath for anything to happen very soon.