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Q&A: Why must we put phones on flight mode when flying?

Technology these days is so good, yet we are still told to put our smartphones on flight mode. Here's why.

by Sharron Livingston

Q&A: Why must we put phones on flight mode when flying?

Anyone who has jetted off on a plane would be familiar with the instructions to buckle up and put cellular devices into flight mode and no explanation is ever offered for the latter.

Not everyone complies. In 2017 a survey by Allianz Global Assistance revealed that about 40% of passengers said they left their mobile phone on while flying, often inadvertently.

So far no plane has fallen out of the ski because of this, though none can say for sure that this definitely won’t happen.

So why the drill?

The general consensus is that smart devices can interfere with aircraft systems. The ability to fly was available before smartphones were introduced and it was unclear how dangerous the signals being emitted by the smartphones would be. It made sense just to switch off completely.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned the use of cell phones on planes in order to “protect against radio interference to cell phone networks on the ground.”

This is because at 40,000 feet active cell phones would be seeking connection service from multiple cell towers on the ground and because they won’t be able to find a connection the electrical signal progressively increases in strength in order to do so. 

This interference, in turn, could potentially block radio frequency for one or two seconds and lead to confusion between the pilots and air traffic control. Pilots have reported hearing an annoying sound in their headphones because of this signal.

Flight mode has changed all that. In 2013 the FCC abandoned the switch-off completely rule in favour of flight mode.

So what does Flight Mode do?

Activating the flight mode setting will stop any form of radio signals from being emitted by disabling all cellular communication, WiFi, and Bluetooth.

You can remain connected and listen to music and use WiFi in flight mode, if the airline provides it, once the aircraft has reached 10,000 feet – for safety reasons.

Future of Flight Mode

Currently, 5G technology, thought to be less risky is being honed for use on flights. European regulators recently cleared the way for 5G-enabled mobile devices to keep their transmitters on during flights. This may well spread to the US and around the world when that happens flight mode may no longer be necessary.

Until then, if you have a smartphone or a device that offers flight mode, then please do use it.

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