So That’s Why My Phone Never Works On 787s!

Filed Under: Travel

I’ve flown the 787 dozens and dozens of times over the years, and I can’t believe I’m only now picking up on this pattern. Let me explain.

Andrew and I are headed to China, and last night before boarding I mentioned to Andrew that he should finish up whatever he needs to do on his phone before boarding, since Chinese airlines have a war on cell phones (though this will finally be changing soon), and this is his first flight on a Chinese airline. He responded with “yeah, and it’s a 787, so it’s not like there’s going to be a signal anyway.”

Huh? I asked him what he meant, and he explained that for whatever reason the signal on a 787 is typically terrible. I had never heard that before, though after thinking about it for a minute, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on the pattern earlier. This is most definitely a thing.

I find that cellular data is often slow around airports, so I guess in the past I just chalked it up to that. However, as I thought back, I consistently remember especially terrible signals on flights operated by the 787. I specifically remember wanting to send some emails during boarding on my recent Uzbekistan Airways flight, and couldn’t get any signal for the life of me, even as we taxied out.

So we boarded our Xiamen Air 787 flight, and sure enough, the second I got on the plane, my phone showed “no service.” I should mention that the signal went in and out. Even when I had a signal, it was almost unusable. So it’s not that there’s never any sort of signal on a 787, but rather that it is consistently worse than on other planes.

Now that I’m doing some research, Jetsetter’s Homestead wrote about this a couple of years ago when she flew one of American’s 787s on the inaugural day. She mentions how she didn’t have any cellular data on arrival or departure, and asked a Panasonic technician who was on the plane about this:

He gave up a bit of a laugh and said “yes, that’s a known problem”.  I trust him to know since their team has been flying with the 787s on all of their pre-passenger testing.  He said that he and his colleagues have experienced the problem firsthand and determined that 787 cell phone interference is a real thing.

It turns out that the 787, while fabricated from composite materials, uses a wire rebar for structural integrity.  That rebar apparently interferes with cellular signals on the plane.

Now it all makes sense!

Have you experienced this issue with getting data on arrival or departure when on a 787?

  1. sure thing

    This is the first time I saw a post from Lucky which has China in the content without being defamed by him.

    How it comes?

  2. Another interesting tidbit when on AA’s 787, was when I connected to wifi (but didn’t actually pay for the service), the GPS had a hard fix on Charleston, SC, directly on the Boeing plant where the 787 is assembled.

  3. if you are a cockpit crew member or near the door you wont have this problem.

    Solution, write to Jetblue and ask them to purchase a fleet of 787. They will get that solved free of charge.

    ( messages over wifi will work, even call and encrypted data, if you now how to bypass filtering )

  4. Are you sure it’s not the copper mesh imbedded in the carbon fiber composite that creates the faraday cage? That seems quite likely to me. The copper mesh is needed so if lighting strikes the plane it doesn’t blow a big hole in the carbon fiber. I’m an electrical engineer and by no means a genius, but the copper mesh almost certainly plays a role.

  5. One likely note of correction. There isn’t wire rebar for “structural integrity”. I believe what Jetsetter’s comment in the article is referencing is the wire mesh that is baked into the composite as lightning strike protection. Composites don’t conduct electricity as metal does, hence the need for an electrical pathway in the event of a lightning strike.

  6. I was on a Virgin Atlantic 787-9 last night and the same thing happened to me. It was odd. It worked in the terminal in MIA and then all the sudden it stopped.

    Glad to know I’m not crazy and this is a thing.

  7. Unrelated to your cell service on 787s, have you considered using the google inbox app to make sense of your 148 unread emails? 😀

  8. @conor.. it is because actuality the 787 never flyes it is just parked in the Boeing hangar with windows are actual movie screens. They throw the plane around with hydraulics so you feel like you are flying…

  9. Your phone is supposed to be in airplane mode while taxiing. Not sending some last-minute emails. Your entitlement is showing.

  10. Aren’t all aluminum based aircraft effectively Faraday cages as well? In which case could it be related to the windows rather than the wire rebar which is in the composite? Either way, surprised that this is a surprise to you, Lucky 🙂

  11. Mr Xu, pretty much everything China is terrible when it comes to flying.

    From hilariously ugly planes over chain-smoking pilots to 5$ sparkling wines in first class, there’s just not much to celebrate. And I haven’t even mentioned children peeing on the floor and adults defecating next to – not in – the actual lavatories.

    Here’s an important lesson: if you want credit, do something that deserves credit. Well, I guess it does command some kind of credit that we’re talking transportation modes in China not used for mowing down peaceful protestors (Tiananmen Square, anyone?).

    That’ll be all.

  12. That’s why Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch didn’t meet on a 787. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to exchange text pictures of Grandkids.

  13. Not all cell signals are equal. Depending on the frequency band the local telco is using some are much better than others in penetrating structures. You might have service on one carrier but none on another as a result.

  14. yep – every time I’ve flown on Etihad’s 787 the service dies almost immediately upon boarding and on landing. It’s frustrating, but something i’ve come to expect.

  15. Yes, it should be related with their electrically controlled windows having transparent electrodes coated(ex. indium tin oxide) on it. This glass transmits light(high frequency EM waves) but not radio frequency EM wave. Therefore poor cell reception.

  16. “I specifically remember wanting to send some emails during boarding on my recent Uzbekistan Airways flight, and couldn’t get any signal for the life of me, even as we taxied out.”

    Shouldn’t your phone be in airplane mode if you’re taxing? Just curious if you keep cell service going the entire flight or eventually shut it off?

    Don’t know if I feel that the rules are pointless, or if I should follow ’em just in case…???

  17. ..and BKT and Kevin are correct in the usage of the wire mesh to conduct electricity around the hull in case of a lightning strike

  18. interesting…my phone worked well on my CAI-LHR 787-9 BA flight once I boarded. I was texting and sending images to my friend while taxiing and right before takeoff before I switched my phone to flight mode.

  19. Pretty sure no one here knows what they’re talking about. Yes, composite planes have conductive metal mesh embedded as a shield against high voltage static charges at altitude. The mesh also probably acts as a convenient additional ground for onboard electronics. Both this mesh and conventional aluminum skin block radio signals. Your cell phone works in most planes because the windows are wide enough for cell phone radio signals to penetrate (wavelength is 11 inches or so). What blocks your cell phone signal on the 787 are the electrochromic glass windows.

  20. I’ve had this problem too! When I landed on Easter Island on LAN’s 787, I had no signal even though I was on T-Mobile’s free international plan. I thought it was due to the island being so remote yet when I stepped off the plane it finally found a signal.

  21. Yep. Never works on the AA 787’s when I am sitting on-board as the plane is being loaded. Frustrating.

    Works on the BA 787’s, though. At least in my memory from the flights I’ve been on them. I’ll try it again in November when I fly to TLV.

  22. Flew an AA 787-9 from DFW to LAX last week. Sitting in the window in row 3 my cell worked mostly fine at both airports – text messages went right through, emails (text only) were a tad slow.

  23. Having flown extensively in JL 787s, I have never noticed this issue- and I do a lot of texting/internet surfing after boarding.

  24. The fact that phones don’t work on an airplane is a positive marketing feature as far as I am concerned. Jeez, switch the damn thing off for once.

  25. @cf frost
    Cellular signal at the airport is weaker than any other places. They use IBS (in building solution) for airport building. Cell tower have minimum range and maximum height to be built anywhere near airport.

    Depending on the country/states regulation on telco, its almost impossible to find a cell transmitter MW antenna directed at the runway/taxiway.

  26. @William Y

    Dare you identify which nationality is of you?

    I can tell you a lot of stories similar as Tiananmen from there too

    Over. Out

  27. I have made 12 787 flights so far this year. I have never noticed any problems with using my phone on board. I usually turn flight mode off as soon as we vacate the runway, and never have problems connecting. It probably says more about your cell provider and your phone than it does about the airplane.

  28. I really doubt this honestly. I fly alot on the 787s and 737s & A320s alot. No difference in the cellular data at all, comparing these A/Cs

  29. WP, Ben said WHILE taxiing: “even as we taxied out”.
    Just turn the thing off, relax, nothing is so urgent you have to be glued to the bloody thing

  30. n,

    Agree 100%. The amount of self-importance and self-absorption being displayed by people who can’t wait 5 minutes to use their phone is truly stunning.

    It’s an addiction.

  31. n, or martin,

    Or like in my case, each minute of work it’s a minute I can use for my free time/holiday later (and my holiday is probably much longer than your, more than 2 months/year).

    Every time i loose my time, I answer my customer or manage my business, waiting hours in airport or inside a not moving plane, taxi, traffic jam is just useless.

    We have different need and life.

  32. Kevin nailed it. It is directly due to the copper mesh imbedded in the composite. Source: Boeing 787 manuals and talks with Boeing engineers.
    UAL 787 Instructor

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