Revealed: The real reason you can’t use your phone on a plane

It’s not long ago that airlines used to ask people to completely turn the devices off during a flight, while nowadays we are often asked to switch them to airplane mode.

The use of mobile phones onboard aircraft to make voice calls or send texts has always been prohibited on UK airlines. 

But many have wondered what happens if you forget to turn your phone on flight mode on a plane.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority: ‘Scientific research has shown that mobile phones can interfere with the normal operation of aircraft equipment and can also cause interference in pilots’ headsets.’

Meanwhile Laura Lindsay, Skyscanner’s travel expert, told Condé Nast Traveller: ‘While most mobile phones don’t emit strong radio waves, devices including Kindles, iPods, laptops and even handheld gaming consoles all also give off radio waves, especially in a compact space.’

The use of mobile phones onboard aircraft to make voice calls or send texts has always been prohibited on UK airlines (stock image)

How does flight mode work? 

Tamara Vallois, head of communications at Wizz Air, explained that even though phones are out of reach of cell towers they will still send out electrical signals in the search for this connection.

By switching flight mode on, cellular signals are disabled which means there will be absolutely no interference on the aircraft. 

Dai Whittingham, chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee, told the BBC that airplane mode was historically important due to a lack of knowledge about how mobile devices affect aircraft.

‘There was a concern they could interfere with automatic flight control systems,’ he said.

‘What has been found with experience is the risk of interference is very small. The recommendation has always been that once you are in flight, devices should be in airplane mode.’

Concerns in the US that using 5G could interfere with flights is much less likely in the UK and the EU, he said.

‘We have a different set of frequencies for 5G, and there are lower power settings than those that have been allowed in the US,’ Mr Whittingham added.

Is there any danger when a passenger forgets to turn their phone into flight mode?

Tamara explained that if a passenger forgot to turn their phone on flight mode it won’t impose any danger.

She said that the flight crew would probably be able to tell if everyone forgot to turn off their devices because of the level of interference but the plane would not malfunction or drop from the sky as some might believe. 

Will the rule be removed in future? 

As technology continues to advance many are hoping there will be a day that we won’t need to turn our devices on airplane mode during a flight.

However for many, not having access to the internet when flying provides some kind of respite, a time to totally switch off and shift into holiday mode. 

It was recently announced that phone calls will be allowed on EU flights in 2023.

The European Commission ruled airlines can provide 5G technology on board planes, alongside slower mobile data.

This could mean flyers will no longer be required to put their phone on airplane mode – though the specifics of how it will be implemented are unclear.

Passengers will be able to access their phone’s usual features including streaming music, receiving emails and scrolling through social media as they would using their 5G mobile network on the ground. 

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said: ‘5G will enable innovative services for people and growth opportunities for European companies.

‘The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity.’

The update will allow for widespread use of 5G services – a technology which gives download speeds of 100Mbps, according to mobile network EE.

This means a 600MB movie could be downloaded in under 37 seconds, the network added.

EU member states had until 30 June this year to make the 5G frequency bands available.


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