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The Federal Communications Commission currently prohibits the use of phones on planes. That is to prevent interference with cellular towers. This means that as long as your phone is in airplane mode – and therefore not sending out a signal – there is no law against using it on the plane, and most airlines allow it.
This article will explore the specifics of using your phone on a plane and the reasoning behind the decisions made.
Do You Have To Turn Your Phone Off While On A Plane?
Until the 2010s, when flying on planes, the rule was that you had to switch your phone completely off for the entire flight duration. Especially during take-off and landing. In those years, asking if you could use your phone on the plane was a question with a straightforward answer. But things got a bit more complicated with the introduction of airplane mode.
What Is Airplane Mode?
Airplane mode is a setting on your smartphone that stops it from sending out any radio signals. This includes all signal types, but the most practical usage of airplane mode suspends the emission of phone signals while leaving signals such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth active. Your phone cannot connect to any cellular networks in airplane mode.
When your device is in this state, you'll usually be able to see an airplane icon somewhere in the notification bar. For Android and Apple devices, it will be at the top of the screen. On a Windows tablet, it may be in the bottom right corner.
Airplane mode didn't catch on immediately. The earliest patent for such a feature was submitted by Qualcomm and dated 2004. The patent doesn't mention planes specifically, but it describes a design where the electronic device powers down any components that emit signals while simultaneously remaining usable in other ways, notably as a personal digital assistant, which was the closest thing to a smartphone at the time.
Flight regulations in most countries prohibit the use of devices that transmit signals on commercial aircraft. In the United States, this would be the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Airplane mode took almost a decade to catch on. The Federal Aviation Administration only announced that mobile phone use was allowed on planes as long as they were in airplane mode in 2013. The European Union followed suit with a similar announcement later that same year, and other jurisdictions followed gradually after that. Now, using your phone on a plane in airplane mode has become the norm.
Why Is Airplane Mode Needed?
The reason the Federal Communications Commission doesn't allow you to use your phone for telephone on a plane has only a little to do with the safety of the aircraft. It has more to do with their infrastructure on the ground.
Specifically, it has to do with the way your phone communicates with cell towers on the ground.
Phones are designed to constantly emit radio waves and other electromagnetic interferences (EMI). The initial concern was that the combination of everyone's devices, or one powerful device, could interfere with an airplane's communication or navigation devices.
The fear would be that the aircraft's navigation systems would be affected. Alternatively, the fear that the flight crew might not be able to communicate with other aircraft or airport towers to avoid collisions and land safely. That is not the case, however.
As you travel on the ground, your phone will always automatically connect to the cell tower best suited for its use, usually the nearest one. Moving around, means transferring from one tower to another while the system maintains a stable connection so that your phone connection doesn't break up.
The cell towers and the system that connects them with your phone were designed with travel speed in mind. However, the conditions they prepared for were car travel and on ground level. The speed at which a plane travels means a massive increase in the frequency of handovers from tower to tower, increasing the load on the system.
The altitude is also critical. Cell towers are very densely packed in many urban areas due to the buildings interfering with the radio signal's travel. This density is not a problem with users on ground level. But a phone in a plane directly overhead will attempt to communicate with a very high number of towers at once, creating a high load for the system that controls them.
What does Airplane Mode Do? And How Does It Work?
Airplane mode disables all wireless transmissions from your phone or other devices with a SIM card like an iPad or tablet. These wireless transmissions include radio, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Airplane mode turns all of these off to prevent interference of radio signals. Here's a breakdown of what gets disabled:
- Cellular signals. Your device stops communicating with cell towers, preventing you from sending or receiving anything dependent on cellular data. That includes voice calls, SMS, or anything requiring mobile data.
- Wi-Fi. Your device stops scanning for nearby Wi-Fi networks, whether it is programmed to connect to them automatically or not, and will stop trying to connect. This also means you will be disconnected from any Wi-Fi network you have already joined.
- Bluetooth (on some devices). Your devices cease to be connected to wireless devices such as headphones, watches, keyboards, mice, and any other peripheral devices connected to the phone, tablet, or computer. Apple iPhones do not disable Bluetooth in Airplane Mode.
With all of these disabled, the device is no longer trying to communicate with towers and maintain connections and thus potentially interfering with the airplane's sensors and navigation equipment.
Your device is not exactly useless, however. You can still access any music, photos, or games already downloaded to your phone that does not require an internet connection.
Several years ago, the FAA realized that the restrictions on cellular devices on airplanes were too strict and loosened them up. Today, you can reenable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on Airplane Mode if the airline permits it.
Is Using Your Phone On A Plane Unsafe?
The extent of the disruptions that mobile phone signals cause to the smooth operation of a plane is controversial. The conventional wisdom is that the radio signal interferes with the plane's navigation systems, leading to fatal consequences if they fail. This has been the justification for the denial when people ask if they can use their phone on a plane.
In reality, if a single passenger doesn't switch their phone into airplane mode, it is highly unlikely that the plane will crash as a result. A very large number of active cell phones on a plane might cause a bigger problem, however, so it's prudent to be cautious and switch your phone to airplane mode nonetheless.
The pilots' communication systems are the most common disruption that phones cause when used on planes. Everyone can identify the sound that speakers make when there's a phone too close to them, especially when that phone is about to ring. It's annoying but not dangerous unless you're a pilot trying to communicate urgent information with an air traffic controller.
If this information has made you panic over your next flight, let us put your worries to rest. A 2013 survey revealed that a shocking 30 percent of air passengers had failed to turn their phones off or put them into airplane mode for a flight. So, we can see that as common as these mistakes are, reports of severe disruptions from them are minimal.
Can You Text on a Plane?
You may want some entertainment to pass the time on long flights, and texting with friends and family is an obvious option.
While flying, you must have airplane mode turned on. Unfortunately, this excludes the use of SMS texting in the traditional sense, as they are sent over cellular networks.
But if you're connected to the plane's in-flight Wi-Fi, you can use that to message your friends instead. However, be aware that some airlines may require payment for you to use Wi-Fi on board.
What Are The Alternatives To Cell Phone Usage On A Plane?
Because it's specifically the cellular signal that interferes with both cell towers and the plane's operation, you can use a configuration of airplane mode that only turns off this signal while leaving the others active. This means that you can still make use of your phone's Wi-Fi.
Several airlines offer Wi-Fi on the plane to their passengers. This functions like any other public Wi-Fi service, meaning your smartphone can connect to it in the usual way. The difference is that the internet connection is provided either by satellite or from the ground by specialized towers that aren't disrupted by the plane's speed and altitude.
Typically, the airlines offer this Wi-Fi as a paid service. But with packages designed for everything from checking your emails to streaming movies, it can be money well spent for a full internet experience. These Wi-Fi services are more common on long haul flights than short-haul. But it'll likely be those transcontinental trips that will leave you preferring to binge on a series than watching the time.
Using the plane's Wi-Fi could even allow you to make phone calls using the Voice over Internet Protocol, enabling software like WhatsApp and Skype to function. Before you do this, it's best to check your airline's policy since even if the connectivity makes it possible, some airlines prohibit phone conversations to minimize nuisance.
If your flight doesn't offer Wi-Fi or if you don't like the prices, remember that by putting your phone or tablet in airplane mode, you're only stopping the radio signal while everything else continues to function. If you've, for example, saved some movies to your phone or have some work on it that you need to do, airplane mode will make that accessible on a plane.
We've learned that when exploring whether you can use your phone on a plane, the answer can be ultimately simplified down to yes, as long as your phone is in airplane mode.
So, will the airplane's flight instruments get messed up if you forget to turn on airplane mode? No. Will you interfere with some ground towers? Probably. Will you drain your battery quick? Absolutely.
Airplane mode stops your phone's cellular signal because of its effect on cell towers and the plane's equipment, but importantly, it's unlikely to endanger anyone if forgotten.
Putting your phone into airplane mode while in flight is still the best option, especially since you can still turn Bluetooth and Wi-Fi back on, and most flights offer in-flight Wi-Fi now. Airplane mode also has other uses even outside of the plane like saving battery.
While watching a movie over the in-flight Wi-Fi, you might also want to enjoy a meal you brought on the flight. You can read more if you want to learn what food you can and cannot bring with you on a flight.
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