Featured Image for Techly Explains: What’s the point of Airplane Mode?

Techly Explains: What’s the point of Airplane Mode?

Picture the scene. You have successfully navigated airport security, managing to quell any instinct you may have to make stupid jokes and get yourself locked up. You have found your seat without accidentally standing on anyone’s toes as you lumber down the aisle. You have stowed your sensibly size carry-on and settled in. You got this.

At this point you vaguely listen to the security announcement and try not to think about that one scene in Fight Club or that other one in Donnie Darko, before the voice-over reminds you to place your devices in Airplane Mode.

“Wait,” you think, “what exactly is the point?”

At this point you turn to your left and realise you’re sitting next to Techly, and we couldn’t be happier to help.

First off, let’s check in with How-To Geek and find out what the mode actually does.

Enabling Airplane Mode (which we’ll call AM from now own to save a little time) essentially disables your device’s wireless capabilities. Specifically, the following four operations are ceased:

  • Cellular access: the phone will stop communicating with the network, preventing calls, texts and whichever data is included in your plan.
  • WiFi: attempts to find and join nearby networks will be ceased and any connections already in place will be severed.
  • Bluetooth: any remote devices or data transfers requiring a Bluetooth connection are nixed.
  • GPS: this works slightly differently, because phones only receive GPS signals rather than transmitting anything, so airplane mode doesn’t stop it on all devices, but airlines still prohibit GPS-based functions.

The general thinking then, is that in order to avoid your phone’s signals interfering with the plane’s on board sensors, AM is the way to go.

But is that actually the case?

Our old friends the Mythbusters claim that airplanes operate on different signals to wireless devices anyway, so it wouldn’t make much difference either way. They also, interestingly, have this to say on the subject:

When you make a call at 10,000 feet, the signal bounces off multiple available cell towers, rather than one at a time. That means too many phone-happy jetsetters might clog up the networks on the ground, which is why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — not the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) — banned cell use on planes.

Which suggests that, at least in terms of American legislation, the restriction actually has little to do with safety. With that in mind, are there any cases of a phone causing an issue on a commercial flight?

The short answer there is yes, while this report from CNN states that in the course of researching a wide-ranging editorial, they found no examples in which “interference from a portable device brought down a commercial flight or was a contributing factor in an accident”.

However, just because nothing disastrous happened, that does not mean that no interference has been reported. In fact, the same report states the following:

From 2003 to 2009, there were 75 instances of suspected electronic device interference, including 29 involving mobile phones, according to a study by the International Air Transport Association.
That is one event for every 283,300 flights.

For what that interference might mean in real terms, there’s a rather jazzy, illustrated video from Travel and Leisure.

So the main concern, at least with cellular data, is that because your device could potentially be communicating with several towers at once, its signal could be amplified and therefore interfere with the pilots’ own communications, therefore making an important job more difficult than it needs to be.

T&L also tell us that technology, known as picocells, already exist that allow for safe voice calls to be made, and that several European airlines have already allowed phone calls to be made at cruising altitude.

The final concern then, considering a future where AM may well be obsolete, isn’t actually scientific at all, but more of an attempt in good spirits to avoid ruining everyone’s day by fulfilling your promise to call your significant other every 20 minutes to tell them what you can see out the window.

It might go against your anarcho-punk sensibilities to follow the rules but dude, please, leave AM on.

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