The truth about Airplane Mode comes to light

  • It turns out that Airplane Mode, the feature of most smartphones, isn’t really used for what you think it is.
  • There is little to no evidence that cellphone connectivity causes interference with the machinery onboard aircraft.
  • Instead, airlines still ask you to switch to Airplane Mode for one reason – people talking on their phones is annoying.

A feature of every smartphone in the world may be completely unnecessary, at least for why you think it exists. This is the Airplane Mode feature that removes all connectivity from your smartphone so that your handset does not interfere with any of the aeroplane’s navigation systems. The idea was that if every passenger used their phones, the aeroplane could experience an emergency.

However, this has now largely been proven as a myth. A 2012 study (PDF) by the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found that there were nearly zero conclusive instances of aircraft disturbance from cell phone usage.

It turns out the evidence that initially led to the creation of an Airplane Mode in the first place was mostly anecdotal. There has never been a single conclusive example of this phenomenon occurring, at least not one that led to any sort of crisis onboard a flight.

According to research done by Gizmodo, the myth first entered the zeitgeist after the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that using cellphones on flights could lead to ground network interference.

Get this: the FCC feared that people making calls while in the air would damage cellular towers on the ground and cause interference to these networks. So this has even less to do with potential dangers while in an aircraft.

In the last several years some airlines have even begun adding WiFi to their planes as a value add for passengers. In 2019, 25 percent of flights had some form of internet connectivity offered by aeroplanes. This number is expected to boom in the next 20 years for the simple reason that it makes money for the airlines. By 2035, the in-flight connectivity market is expected to be worth $130 billion.

“Over the next five years, connectivity will increasingly become a standard aircraft feature,” says Nick Maynard, senior analyst at Juniper Research, quoted by Airport Technology.

“Juniper predicts that the number of connected aircraft will grow by 118% between 2018 and 2023, with over 34,000 commercial and business aircraft outfitted by 2023.”

Why do airlines still insist people use Airplane Mode then?

Airlines and aeroplane crews still tell people to switch to Airplane Mode as a means to keep the peace aboard the craft. People talking loudly on their cell phones would add another stressor to the already stressful process of travelling on a plane.

Could you imagine that alongside the crying babies, the turbulence and the dry chicken, you also have to deal with the random person next to you yapping for three hours with their cousin from Limpopo?

Airlines fear this situation as it could lead to “air rage.”

Gizmodo says that this is when passengers fly into anger directed towards aircraft crew or other passengers – and it’s already a major problem in the US. There was a nearly 300 percent increase in instances of unruly passengers on domestic American flights between 2018 and 2020, according to the FAA.

In the US, it is illegal to disobey instructions from the aircraft crew while onboard a plane, so if you’re told to put your phone into Airplane Mode and don’t do it, the worst that will happen to you is that you could get arrested or fined.

A bit less terrifying than knocking down a plane’s computers with a phone call, but no less important.

[Image – Photo by Sten Ritterfeld on Unsplash]


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