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What Happens to Phones in Airplane Mode and Why It Exists

phone in airplane mode

We've all heard the request when we're on a plane: "Please turn all electronic devices into airplane mode."

You might know it has something to do with helping the plane safely fly, but maybe you've also seen a flight attendant scrolling on Instagram during takeoff, so clearly it can't be that critical, right?

Whether you have an iPhone or a Samsung Android device, or even if you’re using an iPad, Apple Watch, or laptop, you’ll likely run into situations where it can help to cut off notifications, text messages, phone calls, and cellular data. Flight mode is the quickest way to get offline — all you have to do is click the airplane icon on your control center. Still, many people don’t realize why they are doing it. Does it actually make a difference? Here is a rundown of why your flight attendants ask you to put your phone into airplane mode and what that function does.

What Is Airplane Mode?

Every smartphone has the Airplane mode function. It restricts the phone from making external cellular, GPS, and Bluetooth connections. This means no calls, texts, or data can be sent or received while your phone is in airplane mode.

While it gets its name from airplane travel, you can put your phone in airplane mode whenever you feel like it. Many people keep their phones on airplane mode when they do not need to use them to avoid unwanted connections and battery drain. Many operations happen in the background on our phones, many of which we do not even notice, so it can be beneficial to increase your battery life to turn those connections off.

Why Does Airplane Mode Exist?

If airplane mode is so critical, why have we all seen someone using their phone normally on planes, without ending in catastrophe? It turns out there is a disconnect between the commonly understood reasoning behind airplane mode and its actual purpose.

In previous decades, it was claimed that cell and radio signals being transmitted from multiple devices in an airplane would disrupt both the radio frequency the pilots were using and the navigational equipment. That doesn't sound great, especially if you're on the plane being disrupted by those signals. Many of these complaints held water at the time; multiple pilots reported distracting noises and other glitches that came with the overuse of mobile phones on airplanes.

However, in the 1990s, an investigation concluded that there was no significant effect on communication or navigational equipment from using cell phones with their network capabilities. As of 2022, there is no reason to believe that our phones pose any danger to the aircraft’s communication when we are flying.

Instead, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has posed another reason for airplane mode. While the plane itself is not affected by these radio signals, there is still reason to believe that there are noticeable effects on the ground level.When flying, a person moves very fast through the air, and as a result, they connect to multiple cell towers as they pass by. This can disrupt the service provided by those cell towers, given the high volume of users on airplanes and the fast movement of the aircraft.

Why Do We Still Use Airplane Mode?

If there is no actual danger posed by using your phone network on a plane, then why do airplane companies push airplane mode so hard? Well, for starters, it is essential to remember that over two billion people per year fly, and that is a lot of people in the air per day. As we mentioned earlier, the FCC needs to protect cell towers on the ground to ensure they are not overloaded. These cell towers are built to cater to large groups of people in static communities, and all these people flying muddles the way they work.

You might not care about this when you're on the plane, but this matters to you when you're on the ground. If people connect to networks while zipping through the air hundreds of miles per hour, that might affect the quality of your network connection while you're out and about.

In addition to that, there are also new concerns popping up all the time. For example, 5G networks are now one of th eprimary ways people connect to mobile data. Many in the aviation industry have pointed out the bands set aside for 5G are very close to those used for aviation. This has not caused any issues yet, but it is best practice to approach flying and using these networks with caution.

Moreover, it isn’t even necessary to use cellular data after take-off, with in-flight Wi-Fi networks becoming more common. While voice calls are still inaccessible in the air, streaming services, web browsing, and messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage are easy to reach with many in-flight Wi-Fi services.

Why Do Phones Not Work on Planes?

Whether or not your phone is in airplane mode, you've probably noticed that you don't get great coverage when you're 35,000 feet in the air. What gives?

Cell phones work by connecting to a shared mobile network, like the ones run by Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. These connections are made with cell phone towers. Our mobile devices need to be in the range of these towers for our phones to connect with our carrier’s network.When you get in an airplane, you’ll end up tens of thousands of feet in the air, and after 10,000 or so feet, you will no longer be in the range of a cell tower.

Plus, your aircraft is going very fast and has solid metal walls, making it difficult to get a signal.

Many airlines will offer WiFi on domestic flights over landmasses if you are willing to pay. This lets you connect to the Internet and even connect to Internet-based texting and calling through apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. However, this connection to the onboard Internet is not connecting you to any cell towers, making it a completely different process.

The Bottom Line

Airplane mode is not without its usefulness. It can prevent air travel from overloading ground cell towers, and it is a safeguard against future communication malfunctions. That said, it is also not the shield against aircraft damage that many people believe it is. Airplane mode has not been shown to make any notable difference regarding airplane safety, and modern cellular connections do not interfere with navigation systems or radios on the plane, meaning that you will not cause a crash from checking your emails as the plane takes off. The primary purpose of airplane mode is to help ensure that these networks run smoothly for everyone.

Struggling to get good coverage on the ground? The culprit could be the number of phones not in airplane mode in the airplane flying over head, or it could be that you need to find a better cell phone plan. Want to find the best cell phone plan for your needs? Try our free, unbiased Plan Finder. In just a few seconds, we search through thousands of cell phone plan features to find the best deals for your needs.

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