Wait, Do Cell Phones Even Work on Private Jets? A Succession Puzzler

·3 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

In last night’s season three premiere of HBO’s Succession, some of the more gripping moments played out as members of the Roy family—and key players in their business—spoke to each other by cell phone from their separate private jets about who would assume control of Waystar Royco. The scenes were convincingly played by actors including Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Kieran Culkin, J. Smith-Cameron, and Brian Cox, but even as the suspense mounted, a nagging question popped into the mind of some viewers: They are flying miles above cell phone towers—how are their cell phones working?

For anyone who has struggled to receive emails even after having paid for inflight wifi service aboard a commercial flight, the uninterrupted calls stretched credibility or—worse—offered undeniable proof that the rich are different.

T&C reached out to Sven Bilén, an engineering professor at Penn State who has written about aviation and communication and Doug Gollan, a longtime industry expert and founder of Private Jet Card Comparisons, to explain how those calls went through.

Is it possible to speak via cell phones while flying in a private jet?

Bilén: I think what you need to know is that there are two ways that you can talk on your cell phone. One is when your phone accesses your cellular network via a cell tower. The other is through something called Voice Over WiFi. Because most cellular towers aim signals at the ground, accessing a cell network would be difficult at altitude. But planes can connect to WiFi data lines through satellite links. Therefore any call on the show would likely have been made through Voice Over WiFi—especially if the plane were flying over the ocean or far from cell towers.

Is it legal?

Bilén: It depends. According to the FAA, using a cellular network on either a commercial or private plane is illegal. There are some technical reasons why they regulate it. And phone calls aren’t allowed on commercial flights for the obvious reason it would be really annoying to be sitting on a plane with a bunch of people talking on the plane. On a private plane, provided it is a newer model outfitted with the latest communication equipment, a Voice Over WiFi call would not violate the cellular rules.

Do moguls spend all their time on the phone when they’re in their jets?

Gollan: For folks like the ones portrayed in the show, you know, time is money. Phones are an essential part of doing business. So if it’s a matter of firing a division president, you know, they can do it on the flight to L.A.

Is there a special etiquette to using your cell aboard a private jet?

Gollan: Yes, definitely. When you get on a jet, you should ask the person we call the lead passenger—either the owner or the person who chartered the jet, “Where would you like me to sit?” And then, “Do you mind if I make a call?” One reason is that sometimes there are extra charges to use WiFi services. And the other is because, you know, if I was sitting at your dining room table, I wouldn't pick up the phone and start talking.

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