What Could Happen If You Don’t Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode During Flights

It's hard to power down for hours—we totally get it. But the mobile phone rules during air travel were put in place for safety reasons. The question is whether there's any evidence to justify these concerns.

Unlike these things airlines won’t tell you (but every flyer should know), your flight attendants will let you know loud and clear when you can and can’t use your phone. Every airline’s rules are different and constantly changing, but it’s likely that at some point, someone on your flight will ask you to put your phone on airplane mode.

What is airplane mode?

Airplane mode (sometimes called “flight mode“) temporarily suspends signals and WiFi, even as the rest of the device remains fully functional. So you won’t be able to send or receive text messages or calls, but you can view messages that are already downloaded and access other stored information, such as your contacts, notes, games, music, and your downloaded list on your Netflix app.

An added bonus? Switching to airplane mode will save battery power on your device. One of the biggest drains on your cell phone is the process of receiving and sending wireless signals. So switching to your phone’s airplane mode the next time you’re getting ready for takeoff is a very wise move. After all, if you’re on a long flight, having a few extra minutes to spend reading or playing games on your phone could be a welcome advantage. (Find out how to charge your phone as quickly as possible.)

Why is it important to turn it on before takeoff?

One of the most commonly cited reasons by airlines for the strict rule is to keep plane communications uninhibited. Our cell phones are constantly sending and receiving signals in the form of radio waves. Even when you aren’t actively connecting to the Internet, or placing a phone call, your cell is looking for the nearest towers and trying to find the strongest WiFi connection. All that radio activity can slightly affect the plane’s navigational and communication systems. While your phones aren’t going to make the plane spontaneously stop working, or cause a crash landing, it can make the pilots’ jobs a lot harder. Particularly during takeoff and landing—exactly when your pilots need to concentrate most—congestion of communication across radio waves can make it hard or even impossible for your pilots to communicate with the towers on the ground—and that’s pretty important for a safe flight!

Despite airlines still citing this reason for their electronics policies, the Federal Aviation Administration made a press release stating that they would approve airlines allowing full use of cell phones during any and all phases of flight. So if it isn’t for safety reasons, why do some airlines still have the policy?

David Young, Aviation Customer Service Consultant at Ideagen, has an idea of why flight attendants are really asking you to power down during takeoff. “Mobile phones are distracting,” Young says. “They draw people away from paying attention to safety procedures during briefings, and the perception that you are using your phone can cause unnecessary alarm or create tensions between fellow travellers—I’ve witnessed it.”

This reason seems particularly likely given that more and more airlines are moving toward allowing the use of mobile phones during flights. Most airlines already accept limited use of mobile phones during ground phases, and others have WiFi access during the entirety of the flight. Regardless of why the airline is asking you to make the switch to airplane mode, the smart thing to do is to follow each airline’s guidelines in regards to using airplane mode or leaving your phone on as usual. And, while you’re at it, brush up on your airplane etiquette.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest