When flying on an airplane, you may often hear an announcement to put all of your cellular devices into airplane mode.
However, you may ask why that is and if it is really necessary? Read on to find out the answers to "what is airplane mode" and many related questions.
What is 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.
Your phone cannot connect to any cellular networks, reach other devices or send and receive information in airplane mode.
However, this does not entirely answer the question of "what is airplane mode," so keep reading to find out more about what airplane mode is, why it exists, and when to use it.
What is the Purpose of Airplane Mode?
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).
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 effectively. That is not the case, however.
During the flight, you will be out of range of the phone towers your phone is continually attempting to connect to. Your phone sends an increasingly powerful electrical signal in search of these towers because it can't find a connection. Because of this signal, the pilot can hear a grating noise in the headphones.
Before airplane mode, all devices that could transmit signals would need to be powered down, especially during takeoff and landing. However, since the advent of airplane mode on mobile phones, devices can be put into airplane mode and still be used on flights, even during takeoff and landing.
What does Airplane Mode Do? And How Does Airplane Mode 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 and do 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, people can reenable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on Airplane Mode if the airline permits it.
Turning Bluetooth Back on After Airplane Mode is Enabled
For people working on a computer or tablet while in flight, the initial instruction is to have all items stored until after takeoff. But if airplane mode needs to be on, that might prevent you from using a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard or mouse. Or even a pair of headphones.
However, once you have enabled airplane mode, you can turn Bluetooth back on and reinstate the connections to all peripherals.
Turning Wi-Fi Back on After Airplane Mode is Enabled
Many planes are starting to offer in-flight Wi-Fi for you to browse the web and social media.
You can turn Wi-Fi back on the same way you turn Bluetooth back on. Once airplane mode is enabled, you can manually reenable Wi-Fi and connect to the Wi-Fi signal the airplane is providing.
Once you have completed all of those steps, you can browse the internet as usual.
Airplanes May Offer Cellular Signal in the Future
The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may be redefining rules that allow for a cellular signal on airplanes flying above 10,000 feet.
This would allow for regular calling, SMS, and mobile data – which means browsing without accepting the airplane's in-flight Wi-Fi or in addition to it.
However, the United States Department of Transportation considers banning cell phone calls on flights because of how disruptive they can be.
Is Airplane Mode Really Necessary?
So if airplane mode disables the Wi-Fi and you have to manually turn it back on to use the airplane's in-flight Wi-Fi, why bother disabling the Wi-Fi in the first place? If aircraft are going to offer Wi-Fi and perhaps even cell service soon, what is the point?
Plus, on modern aircraft, the onboard equipment is much more robust than when the laws about powering down personal devices in-flight came about. Is it time to rethink the purpose of airplane mode?
One thing to note is that with how fast commercial airplanes travel, phones would constantly switch from one tower to the next, and the battery would drain incredibly fast.
And, there is more potential for your phone to mess with the cell signals others are on the ground receive rather than signals the aircraft receive. The FAA has determined that too many phones in airplanes trying to connect to ground towers could overwhelm them and disrupt service.
With new technologies, airplanes utilize a combination of ground towers and satellites to provide Wi-Fi signals on the plane for you to use. The frequency is specifically tuned to allow for stable Wi-Fi on an airplane moving fast relative to the ground with minimal switching that would otherwise drain the battery on your phone.
Should the technology expand to allow cellular signals, aircraft could feature small cellular units to communicate with ground towers through satellites to give you cell signals - without interfering with the airplane's instruments or ground towers.
When to Use Airplane Mode?
It is needless to say that you should use airplane mode when flying on an airplane. Remember that you can still use Bluetooth and even Wi-Fi if the airline allows it.
However, even outside of the airplane, turning on airplane mode is a great way to save battery if you're not actively browsing the internet. Those radio signals drain the device's battery as they constantly send and receive, search for signals, and update information on your device.
Airplane mode is also an excellent way to charge your phone faster because it cannot send or receive information, which would otherwise drain the battery.
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.
Putting your phone into airplane mode while in flight is still the best option, especially since you can still turn Bluetooth back on, and most flights offer Wi-Fi now. Airplane mode also has other uses even outside of the plane.