Myth or not, is airplane mode still necessary?

Turning on airplane mode before a flight seems like a logical precaution. You may be concerned 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 largely unfounded. Airlines have another motive for requesting that phones be turned off.

The idea that airplane mode is essential to flight safety has persisted, despite being largely debunked. Contrary to popular belief, cell phone operation does not significantly interfere with aircraft systems. In fact: since 2022 European flights have allowed phone calls and data use, made possible by the implementation of “picocells”, which manage signals to avoid interference with the aircraft’s communications systems. Even without such technology, there is evidence that cell phones once caused interference with aircraft electronics.

This may come as a surprise, but the main reason behind the Airplane Mode requirement is not technical but social. Airlines are concerned about the risk of more incidentsvent anger” due to passengers incessantly using their phones during flights. Air rage, characterized by aggressive behavior towards flight attendants and fellow passengers, has become a major problem, with the number of reported incidents increasing by approximately 300% between 2021 and 2023 (more than 10,000 unruly passengers) According to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), regulators continue to impose restrictions on phone calls and data use during flights, despite the lack of concrete evidence linking phone use to airstrikes.

Photo of air rage

Federal law requires compliance with crew instructions, including activating airplane mode during flight. This directive grew out of outdated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations in 1991, which banned the use of cell phones on airplanes due to concerns about ground network interference. However, technological advances such as picocells have made these concerns obsolete. Despite efforts to overturn the ban on in-flight phone calls and data use, fueled by technological advances and changing social norms, resistance from regulators and airlines persists due to fears of potential chaos in the skies.

The continued prevalence of the airplane mode myth can be attributed to society’s perception 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 is still considered a fundamental aspect of air travel etiquette.