Can You Use Your Phone On A Plane?

Find out if you can use your phone on a plane and how airplane mode makes your phone safe to use in flight.

Tobias Holm
Tobias Holm

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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 telephony signals while leaving signals such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth active.

Can you use your phone on a plane? Airplane mode lets you use your phone while on a flight.
Airplane mode limits some of the signals transmitted by your phone.

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.

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 Do The Federal Communications Commission Prohibit Phone Calls On Planes?

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.

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. That means transferring from one tower to another while the system maintains a stable connection so that your phone call doesn't break up.

The reason you are not allowed to use your phone for telephone use on a plane also has to do with matters on the ground.

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.

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.

Your phone can interfere with electronics on the aircraft.
Cell phones can interfere with the communications and navigational instruments on the aircraft.

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.

What Are The Alternatives To Cell Phone Usage On A Plane?

Because it's specifically the telephony 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.

If you switch on airplane mode, you can use your phone on a plane.
You can still use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth while on an aircraft.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Airplane mode stops your phone's telephony signal because of its effect on cell towers and the plane's equipment, but importantly that it's unlikely to endanger anyone if forgotten.

And 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.

Commercial Aviation

Tobias Holm

Founder of Planenerd, based in Denmark. Got a LEGO plane as a kid. Obsessed with aviation since. None of my friends want to talk about airplanes.