The Reasons Behind The Need For Passengers To Put Their Phones Into Flight Mode

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Written by Publishing Team

We’ve all experienced flight announcements – and maybe some hassle – switching phones off or putting them into flight mode. This is believed to be in order to prevent interference with aircraft systems, but the bigger benefits may be to ground equipment and your device’s batteries!

Activating flight mode

Flight mode, or airplane mode, was introduced in the early days of smartphones. Prior to that, phones and other electronic devices had to be switched off entirely for a flight. In Europe and the US, regulations changed in 2013 to allow devices to remain powered on as long as there were in flight mode. Regulation still differs between countries. China, for example, only changed its rules in 2017 to recognize flight mode.

Almost all devices, such as Android phones, iPhones, iPads, or Windows tablets and laptops, have a flight mode these days. Activating flight mode will disable all cellular communication, WiFi, and Bluetooth. Many devices will allow WiFi to be enabled while in flight mode – this is to enable the use of aircraft-installed WiFi services (generally permitted only above 10,000 feet for safety).

Preventing interference from signals

Flight mode will stop devices from emitting any form of radio signal. These could cause electromagnetic interference with aircraft systems, electronics, or communications. This is even worse in flight than it would be on the ground, as many mobile devices are designed to boost signal strength if they have difficulty connecting to a tower. The interference could be with pilot and ATC radio communication or with navigational systems.

These days we know interference to be less of a problem. It has been well tested, and systems are now designed to handle it. This was not necessarily the case when mobile use began – aircraft systems were already in place and not tested against these new threats. Preventing or severely limiting use, therefore, made sense.

The worry has always been that signals could interfere in the cockpit. This is not likely – but possible. Photo: Getty Images

Protecting ground equipment

There is another reason sometimes cited too for the early introduction of mobile phone restrictions. This is related to the potential impact on cellular ground equipment.

A mobile device operating at altitude, and moving at speed, can see multiple cell towers at the same time. This will block frequencies used by these towers, with much more activity than they were designed to handle from ground-based devices. In the US, the ban on electronic devices in flight was initially put in place by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), not the FAA, for this reason.

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Is regulation over-cautious?

It is widely accepted that disabling all devices in this way is over-cautious. But the aviation industry works that way, with tight requirements to ensure the maximum levels of safety.

In the early days of cellular use, it was more of a problem – there are even reports of pilots hearing clicking sounds every time a phone tried to make a connection.

These days, modern aircraft systems and electronics are well tested to ensure minimal interference. Airlines and regulators know that not all devices will actually be switched off – and, of course, we do not see aircraft losing communication or flying off course as a result. Growth, safety is paramount, and there is always the chance of untested devices and interference becoming a problem.

Regulation has shifted to allow more use during flight, with onboard WiFi now common. Photo: American Airlines

What do you think about regulations for mobile use during flights? It has lightened over the years, and these days devices can be used more than before. Do you think we will see further changes in regulation?

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