Myth or not, is airplane mode still necessary?

Myth or not, is airplane mode still necessary?

Turning on airplane mode before a flight seems like a logical precaution. You might worry that your phone signal could disrupt the plane's navigation, leading to a catastrophe. But the idea that airplane mode is crucial for safety is mostly unfounded. Airlines have another motive for requesting phones to be turned off.

The notion that airplane mode is essential for flight safety has persisted, despite being largely debunked. Contrary to common belief, the operation of mobile phones doesn't significantly interfere with aircraft systems. In fact, since 2022, European flights have permitted phone calls and data usage, facilitated by the implementation of "pico-cells," which manage signals to prevent interference with the aircraft's communication systems. Even without such technology, there is evidence to suggest that mobile phones have ever caused disturbances to aircraft electronics.

This might come as a surprise, but the primary reason behind the requirement for airplane mode is not technical but social. Airlines are concerned about the potential for increased incidents of "air rage" resulting from passengers incessantly using their phones during flights. Air rage, characterized by aggressive behavior towards flight attendants and fellow passengers, has become a significant issue, with reported incidents increasing by approximately 300% between 2021 and 2023 (more than 10,000 undisciplined passengers) according to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Despite the lack of concrete evidence linking phone usage to air rage, regulators continue to enforce restrictions on phone calls and data usage during flights due to concerns about disruptive behavior.  

Air rage photo

Federal law mandates compliance with crew instructions, which include activating airplane mode during flight. This directive originated from outdated regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1991, which prohibited cell phone usage on planes due to concerns about ground network interference. However, advancements in technology, such as pico-cells, have rendered these concerns obsolete. Despite efforts to overturn the ban on in-flight phone calls and data usage, fueled by technological advancements and changing social norms, resistance from regulators and airlines persists due to fears of potential chaos in the air.

The enduring prevalence of the airplane mode myth can be attributed to societal perceptions of flying and a sense of obligation to adhere to airline regulations. Despite the lack of substantial evidence supporting its necessity for flight safety, airplane mode continues to be viewed as a fundamental aspect of air travel etiquette.