Basically, on the plane your phone can’t decide which antenna to connect to, and this confusion contributes to the slow service. It doesn’t help that on any given plane, anywhere from 50 to 300 passengers might be clambering for a signal as soon as they are seated or as soon as the plane touches down. Pair this with certain aircraft models, such as the Boeing 787, whose structural materials may impede cell signals, and you get a perfect storm of poor service.
A coverage rift erupts most noticeably between the terminal’s interiors and the surrounding cellular landscape. On the airplane, you’re neither inside the airport nor clearly outside it—you’re in a bizarre netherworld, where cell signals are muddled.
Bad service on parked planes becomes a useful parable for thinking about the overlapping promises of mobile technology and commercial flight. You want to think of yourself as standing at the center of the travel experience: it’s your journey, your life, your social-media posts. But complex infrastructure and collective behaviors make the whole enterprise chug along. To provide maximum service to users, carriers oversupply the airport concourses, but at the expense of the tarmac areas that fall just out of reception zone for the terminal antennae, which are also just a bit too far from nearby cell towers. It’s a compromise in service of a larger (if imperfect) arrangement.