Let’s be honest: We’ve all felt that little bit of surprise as we’re landing at our destination and hear the ‘ding’ from a cell phone that’s clearly not in airplane mode. Maybe it’s yours? Whoever it is, someone in the cabin has garnered the disdain of the flight crew for not following a simple instruction: “All cellular devices must be placed in airplane mode.” RELATED: Another Reason to Switch Your Phone to Airplane Mode
But let’s be curious for a second, why does it REALLY matter whether we place our phones in airplane mode? Well, there is one very important reason airlines, the FAA and the FCC require your phones to be in airplane mode, and there’s another reason you probably want it to be in airplane mode as well. Let’s look at both.
Our cell phones emit electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. When you place a call, the waves move at a specific frequency to make contact with a nearby cellular tower. The call is then relayed between towers to your recipient. Easy enough.
The further you get away from these towers, the more intensely your phone searches for a signal, sending out these waves and expending a lot of energy in the process (we will discuss that further momentarily). Think of it like speaking to someone. When you’re close together, it’s easy to hear and to speak. Further away, the person speaking must yell in order to be heard. It exerts a lot of effort.
So, what does this have to do with flying? Well, when we fly, we are a long distance away from the closest cell tower, as some flights take place over seven miles in the sky. Without airplane mode on, your phone is sitting in your pocket, desperately searching for a signal, and expending tremendous energy to find it. This causes it to burn through the battery, but also causes other difficulties that are arguably more significant than a dead iPhone.
The primary difficulty this creates is when phones suddenly connect and disconnect from towers as you fly past, they can create bursts of radio waves, which cause interference to other electrical devices, namely, the airplane’s communication and navigation radios. This is the main reason crews ask that you place your phone on airplane mode.
What does this interference sound like? It truthfully sounds like a buzzing or humming over our communication radios and can be quite distracting. This is because there are a limited number of frequencies for these radio waves and some can interfere with one another.
Also, when your phone does manage to locate and connect to a tower, it may actually connect to several towers at once. This can tie up the network for other users on the ground.
For the reason you should want to put your phone on airplane mode anyway, consider this scenario:
You’ve arrived home in Los Angeles after a flight from New York. After the plane lands, you reach into your pocket to fish out your phone. After all, you need to see how long the wait for an Uber is going to be. That’s when you have the awful realization: your phone is DEAD. Not dying, dead. In all the hustle of leaving JFK, you forgot to put your phone on airplane mode. And for the whole flight, it was desperately searching for a signal, exhausting itself to find a connection, until it had nothing left to give and shut down. How are you going to catch an Uber now? Good luck finding an open outlet to charge it in LAX! And even if you do, should you use it? Don’t use an airport charging station without using this device.
Like I said, our phones waste a ton of energy searching for a signal when you are far away from a tower. That leads to accelerated battery drainage and potentially a dead battery. So, the best way to prevent this is to place your phone on airplane mode.
But more than that, operating cell phones in-flight can create communication distraction for the flight crew, tie-up multiple towers blocking other users from accessing them and create bursts of radio waves when they do suddenly connect and disconnect. And that’s in addition to finding yourself with a dead phone at your destination.
However, each of these issues can be avoided by opening your phone and simply turning airplane mode on.
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