When your flight’s about to depart, you know the drill. A flight attendant or the captain tells everyone to put their phones on “airplane mode.” And we mostly all do – with a minimum of fuss. After all, it’s a safety issue. Or is it? And if so, why is it? What’s the science?

Why must we put our phones on “airplane mode” during a flight?

One reason is pretty straightforward. The airlines need your attention during the safety and announcement portion of the flight. We all know that it’s tough to pull attention from someone using their cell phone.

But more importantly, it’s a safety concern. Conventional air travel wisdom warns that cell phone signals can interfere with an airplane’s communication signals – both for navigating and takeoffs/landings. However, that fear has largely dissipated over the years. In fact, if you’ve ever forgotten to turn off your phone you’ve probably wondered if these warnings were necessary. The answer is both yes and no.

Can the flight attendants ”tell” if you still have your phone on?

Sometimes. If there are one or two people with their phones on it’s not likely to show up in any meaningful way. But flight attendants report that when a full flight has a bigger number of non compliant passengers, it can (and does) show up as interference. If you’ve ever been on a flight where this happens, the flight crew will make that announcement and ask people to please comply.

What happens during this cell phone interference?

Basically, when a pilot is navigating they’re in communication with various computer systems and staffing on the ground. 3G or 4G cell phone technology can cause “noise” to interfere with this process. Pilots need no distractions or noise when working. This is not an exact science, however. In fact, over the years, more and more experts have begun to downplay the importance of using airplane mode. But it’s still been a “better safe than sorry” precaution that lingers.

So, why is Europe doing away with the need to put your phone on “airplane mode?”

The European Union (EU) mandated that airlines have until June of 2023 to institute 5G technology on all flights. Once that happens, airplane mode will be largely a thing of the past. Why?

Europe works on a slightly different 5G frequency than the U.S. In the United States, the 5G band sits just a little higher than in Europe. This means it bumps up slightly closer to the band of the radio altimeter. The altimeter measures how far above the ground an airplane is traveling at any given time, which is critical during bad weather landings.

So, because of this, some of the U.S airlines have pushed back on relaxing the rules, arguing that in theory 5G technology could interfere with altimeters and sensitive equipment in use on flights. Europe’s bigger gap between altimeter and 5G bands theoretically works better at blocking 5G signals.

For now, we’ll have to soldier on through domestic flights at home. Let us know what you think about the new “airplane mode” rules in the comments section below.

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