Good news, flyers: ‘Flight mode’ is safe during take-off and landing



This article is by Hamza Bendemra, Doctoral Candidate, Engineering at Australian National University. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis Earlier this year, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) put together a panel of aviation experts to look at whether personal electronic devices (PEDs) could be used on planes without compromising safety.

The results are in: the committee is recommending that electronic devices – such as tablets, e-readers and other PEDs – be allowed during all phases of flight (including take-off and landing).

The FAA asked the Advisory and Rulemaking Committee to investigate this particular issue after growing public scepticism about limitations, and increased public pressure to allow passengers to use their electronic devices during all phases of flight. When applicable, passengers will have to switch their devices to airplane/flight mode. Passengers will hence be allowed to listen to music, watch a movie, play games or read an e-book on their e-reader or tablet – as long as the data was downloaded and saved on the device before take-off.

As the committee’s report points out, many new generation aircraft have the appropriate shielding to prevent any interference from PEDs that may be on board.

The FAA is widely expected to follow through with the committee’s recommendations and will likely begin implementation next year. Other regulatory agencies, such as Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), are expected to follow FAA’s lead on the issue.

The committee is maintaining restrictions on devices capable of connecting to a mobile phone network and/or with data communication capability. Hence, mobile phones are not expected to be allowed to be used during take-offs and landings any time soon. They will be required to be put on “flight mode”.

A mobile phone searching for a network tower emits much higher energy radio waves and is therefore more likely to cause electromagnetic interference (EMI). Another concern is that a plane flying with several hundreds of phones attempting to connect to a nearby tower would cause unnecessary strain on the mobile phone network.

However, some airlines are already offering products that allows their passengers to make phone calls on their flight. Emirates has been pushing for this technology for several years. It relies on pio-cell technology which is basically an on-board antenna which relays calls to towers on the ground. The system is controlled by the flight crew.

Pressure on the FAA sharply increased over the past few years as electronic device use skyrocketed and airline passengers became increasingly dependent on them. As Brazilian illustrator Felipe Luchi so perfectly illustrated in his artwork, we are becoming increasingly dependent on our mobile devices.

The decision to allow the use of electronic devices on planes may seem self-evident to some, but the committee was rigorous. The committee was set to release its recommendation months ago but asked for an extension as there was a large amount of data to review and evaluate. Public perception that a small device like a mobile phone could not possibly interfere with a plane’s electronics is at the core of the issue – as shown by the parody below.

A recently conducted survey showed that 30% of passengers admitted to not turning off their mobile phone when flying – but how many of them are actual aviation safety experts? Does knowing how to use an iPhone give someone the expertise to assess whether it can take interfere with a plane’s electronics?

Evidence-based policy is – as the term suggests – based on evidence. As is usually the case with research, it is extremely difficult to come up with a black-and-white answer. Research outcomes are made up of shades of grey: assessing likelihood, risk and so on.

As pointed out in a previous piece for The Conversation, interference allegedly due to phone calls during flight has been reported – but the lift of the ban on electronic devices such as e-readers and tablets is certainly most welcome.

Hamza Bendemra does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. Image credit: Qantas

The Conversation


  1. Oh god, let’s put everyone else in charge of safety. The crowd knows best.

  2. There’s a big difference between technically safe to use and optimal for use when considering that the Cajun crew need to be in positions of authority should an incident occur.

    • So why make people undermine (secretly) their authority over a rule that doesn’t matter.

      IE “screw these guys; I’m going to leave my phone on during takeoff!”. Instead of making the cabin crew enforce ludicrous rules like “you must turn off all electronic devices, even your kindle, except you know your watch, thats fine, and your iPad you left on in your carry-on over your head.”

      We should make the cabin crew enforce real rules; like stow your bags in the overhead and not the aisle, you know, things that affect everyone’s safety.

  3. Seriously, are people that chained to their phones they have to use them during takeoff and landing? Christ almighty.

    • I like to read during take-off and landing. Some people read on devices.

      Why are people so quick to judge what we are using phones for?

  4. Actually, I don’t thik there’s been many facts involved in the discussion.

    When I was studying Electrical Engineering back in the 90’s, a mate & I were discussing
    electrical radiation. He’s was a Qantas engineer. I asked about how aircraft manages in
    electrical storms. Anyone who owns an AM radio knows that lightning sends out lots of interference across a broad spectrum. My mate said – oh all the instruments are encased in lead for that very reason. They’re also isolated to protect them during a direct lightning strike on an aircraft (which apparently happens quite regularly).

    So I asked why are mobile phones, which output about 1 millionth of the power/energy of a lightning strike causing issues? He said they don’t. No one actually knew why the ban came into play. There were rumours, about mobile phones in aircraft locking up cell towers as they flew over one to the next, but we both agree this was unlikely as cell towers are designed to pick up signals from the ground & the distance to the ground would be too great.

    His theory was that people are afraid of aircraft falling out of the sky, so whilst the fear imaginary, the industry always err’d on the side of caution & reacted by banning mobile phones, because if there was an incident, someone would blame mobile phones & thus in people’s mind the fear was real.

    Personally I like the indeed of a mobile ban, it’s annoying enough on a 30min train trip, let alone a 10hr flight of someone shouting into a phone.

    • Re mobile phone towers and signals from the ground.

      In the middle of the melbourne CBD, at between 200 and 250 meters high, outside on the roof of a building (tallest in the particular block) has between 1 bar and no Optus mobile phone reception. (Just in-case someone claims blackspot! there is flawless reception at ground level on all sides of the building.)

      I would be amazed if a mobile tower heard a mobile phone above 500 meters. The only thing this could be about would be attention during takeoff and landing. I believe they play movies during that time these days. (interrupted only for the “this is how you put on a life jacket” video).

      • Remember the 911 flight that crashed into a field? People on that rang home to say goodbye, and they were quite high, well above 500 metres.

        I doubt the telcos like having their towers waste capacity scanning upwards.

  5. @Jason : Another airline professional I know posited another fairly reasonable and logical explanation :

    The crew ask mobile devices to be turned off during takeoff and landing because those are the two most dangerous parts of any flight – ie basically by forcing people to not be buried in their phone/tablet, you’re by extension forcing them to be more alert and focused, should they need to egress the aircraft in a hurry should an emergency arise.

  6. Losing the first 20-30 mins on a flight – being unable to read on my tablet – means I fall asleep. Not sit there alert in case something happens.

  7. IMHO if mobile phones etc were that much of a risk to a plane they wouldn’t leave it up to the passenger to do the right thing. It wouldn’t be allowed on the plane in the first place or put in checked in baggage afrer being confirmed off. Leaving such a “risk” in the hands of passengers makes a mockery of the rule. How many times have we heard a phone ringing in the overhead locker on landing.

  8. @Fajooliobongersnap, that is true, but doesn’t explain why I can read a heavy hardback book, but can’t read on my Kindle (with 3G/wireless turned off). No difference from a safety perspective.

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