What Really Happens If You Don't Set Your Phone to Airplane Mode When Flying?

There are really good reasons for keeping your phone on airplane mode, but probably not what you think

What Really Happens If You Don't Set Your Phone to Airplane Mode When Flying?
Image: Pexels
August 22, 2018

What happens if you don't put your cell phone into airplane mode when you board an airplane?

This question is without a doubt one of the most common questions people ask when flying. Most people obey this order. Some do not; yet the plane still lands safely. You may have even been guilty of turning off cellular data mistakenly believing that you're in airplane mode. But if planes aren't crashing because of phones, why should you put your phone into airplane mode during your next flight?

Does a Cell Phone Interfere with a plane's navigation?

Some people believe that a cell phone interferes with the equipment on a plane primarily responsible for navigation. But it's never been proven that this is the case. Systems on aircraft are crafted to some pretty high standards and are shielded to prevent outside interference. Still, just because a phone hasn't been responsible for causing interference doesn't mean it's not possible.

The National Transportation Safety Board has never issued a recommendation about personal electronic devices on planes. In fact, there is no documented case in which electromagnetic interference from a portable electronic device contributed to a plane crash. Electromagnetic interference risks are very low, but the consequences are quite high.

WIll The Plane Crash?

Your phone is not necessarily going to cause the plane to crash. But you will annoy the pilots and air traffic controllers. And that annoyance could be enough to distract them. On the ground, cell phones operate at a fairly low power. However, as you get further from a cell phone tower, the power of your phone must increase in order to communicate effectively. This power can be magnitudes higher than a simple Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signal. As you get higher from the ground, you get higher from the cell phone towers. So, your phone increases power accordingly.

Unpleasant Noise

This increase in power causes radio emissions that can make a very unpleasant noise through the audio system that the pilots and air traffic controllers can hear. Obviously, if there is just one person on the plane inconsiderate enough to leave a cell phone turned on, it's probably not enough to cause too much of a disturbance. However, the more people who have cell phones transmitting signals the more feedback noise and distraction is present for the pilots. That distraction could be enough to cause a problem in flight. You really don't want your pilot distracted.

What About Carriers that Allow In-Flight Calls?

Some carriers have in-flight cellular service. In this case, there is a cell station inside the plane that communicates directly to the ground. Cell phones on board communicate directly with the cell station at a very low power, causing no issues. So, if you accidentally forget to turn your phone into airplane mode, it's not that big of a deal. But you should follow this simple order, as you are helping those professionals on your plane to get you where you need to go as safely as possible.

What is the take home message?

Even though a cell phone signal probably won't directly cause a plane crash, you should still do your part. So do everyone a favor; just put your phone to airplane mode and turn off anything you don't need to have on. Your pilots, who are responsible for getting you to your destination safely, will thank you.