Do we really need to switch our devices into airplane mode when flying?

Many passengers have wondered…. “How important is it to switch your Personal Electronic Devices (PED’s) into airplane mode? The flight attendants say that these electronics can interfere with airplane communications and navigation systems, but is that really true?

They seem to make such a big deal about it.” In the recent past, there have even been a few instances where celebrities have been kicked off of flights for refusing to stop talking on their phones after the main cabin door was closed. Truth be told, it’s a little complicated, but here’s why your electronic devices should be switched into airplane mode:

For one thing, the use of PED’s on airplanes is restricted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  So, it’s the law. Flight attendants are required to inform you about the rule and you are supposed to comply. At the same time, it is entirely possible (albeit unlikely) that your device COULD potentially interfere with the airplane’s communication or navigation systems. As a precaution, airlines have you turn off the wireless transmitting capabilities prior to takeoff.

As a precaution, airlines have you turn off the wireless transmitting capabilities prior to takeoff.

As a commercial airline pilot, I can tell you that I have personally witnessed one instance, while on the ground, where my own phone actually did interfere with radio transmissions. An incoming call was enough to cause static on the plane’s radios, despite the phone being set to vibrate and without me even answering the call. The interference was enough to turn a crystal-clear radio communication into audio that was difficult to understand. This particular incident occurred prior to the boarding process and long before the aircraft had departed the gate (so it wasn’t a safety issue), but it illustrates the potential pitfalls of PED’s.

How is this possible?  And even if that is true, how could one little phone or tablet way back in the rear of the airplane affect any of the systems on a modern airliner?  Well, this is where it gets complicated.

The electronic systems on airliners in service today are designed to be shielded and protected from interference from other electronics on board the plane.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any PED’s would cause a problem with the planes electronics. However, on a given flight there is never just one electronic device in the cabin. Most passengers have at least one phone/device, if not multiple. So, it is not the lone cell phone that concerns the FAA or airlines.  It is an entire plane full of active phones, tablets, laptops, etc. that are potentially all transmitting electronic signals at the same time. On any given plane (like a 737 holding 150 passengers), there is probably at least as many PED’s as there are people.  That adds up to a lot of wireless activity. Also, modern electronics have become more advanced and powerful with each new generation, resulting in potentially stronger electronic signals across the board.

Also, it should be noted that the plane’s electronic systems are not all located in the cockpit and at the front of the plane.  There are computers, wiring, and antennas all along the entire length of the airplane, both inside and out.  So, even though you are sitting back in row 22, there could be a computer system or antenna located directly below your seat that is transmitting electronic signals towards the ground, the sky, or other planes.

How about the electronic devices used by airline crews? Shouldn’t they be a concern? Well, airlines go to great lengths to test certain devices for safe use on planes.  The iPad’s and tablets currently being used by pilots at most airlines are just one example.  Those devices were only approved for use in the cockpit after being thoroughly tested on numerous planes and after demonstrating that they would not cause any problems or interference.

…the airlines and government agencies that regulate them always air on the side of caution when it comes to safety.

Fortunately, there has never been a serious accident caused by interference from PED’s.  It is also highly unlikely that even a large number of transmitting PED’s could cause a significant issue.  However, the airlines and government agencies that regulate them always air on the side of caution when it comes to safety.  Even if there is only a very remote chance of PED’s causing a problem, they will continue to be prohibited during certain phases of the flight. As always, your safety remains the number one priority, and this rule is merely a reflection of that focus. That’s why you are required to turn off the wireless capabilities when the main cabin door is closed.