Why You Still Have To Switch Your Mobile Phone Off On Planes

Why You Still Have To Switch Your Mobile Phone Off On Planes

It’s a fact of life for anyone boarding a plane: all electronic devices need to be turned off during take-off and landing. Most airlines have had this rule in place for more than a decade now, even though there has been no definitive documented instance in which passengers leaving their devices on caused a plane crash. So why are we forced to stop listening to music or reading a Kindle during take-off and landing?

Flight picture from Shutterstock

Many passengers simply ignore instructions, as shown by a recent US study, which found a third of passengers admit to not always turning off their devices during take-off and landing.

The US Federal Administration Authority (FAA) has responded to growing public scepticism to its “everything must be switched off” blanket rule by setting up a body to look into the issue and has started to slowly relax some rules.

Some US airline staff are now using iPads to replace paper flight manuals and get more information about their passengers.

Last month, British Airways became the first European airline to allow passengers to switch on their mobile phones just after landing.

What’s the point of flight mode?

Airplane mode or flight mode is a setting available on most electronic devices, such as eReaders and smartphones, which suspends many of the device’s signal transmitting functions.

So why are we still asking passengers to completely power down all electronic devices before take-off and landing, especially when staff are allowed to use tablets?

The argument that electronic devices on a flight (commonly referred to in the industry as “portable electronic devices” or PEDs) have never resulted in a plane crash is beside the point.

As aviation expert and New York Times columnist Christine Negroni wrote recently, there actually have been reported cases of pilots reporting electronic devices interfering with flight systems on commercial flights — issues that subsequently disappeared when the flight crew spotted the offender(s).

In 2001, NASA put out a report compiling data on PEDs attributed to having anomalies with aircraft systems. The report concludes that:

the data clearly indicates that not only were some events judged as having a critical effect on a system, but they also happened during critical states of flight specifically landings and take-offs.

In 2003, it was found that a charter pilot had called home during a flight and the call remained connected. The plane crashed at Christchurch Airport when the plane flew into the ground short of the runway. Eight people died, including the pilot.

The investigation that ensued from the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission stated that the pilot’s mobile phone may have interfered with the plane’s navigation system.

In 2011, the ABC in the US reported on a confidential report from the International Air Transport Association STEADS program which uses data provided by the world’s airlines.

The database showed 75 events over the past seven years in which interferences occurred that pilots and engineers think are linked to cellphones or other electronic devices.

And even in airplane mode, a smartphone still emits some electromagnetic radiation, as do devices that can’t connect to the internet, such as MP3 players.

A systems approach to aviation safety

Safety in commercial aviation is not to be viewed as an isolated aspect but as being part of a larger system made up of many interlinked avionics components.

For example, do you think those in-flight safety demonstrations and airplane seatbelts are useless? They’re not.

New generation aircraft are more robust and better shielded to electromagnetic interference — disturbance affecting an electrical circuit due to either electromagnetic induction or radiation emitted by an external source — but how many passengers know how old the aircraft they’re boarding actually is?

Another argument that usually comes up involves the use of in-flight Wi-Fi that is offered by certain airlines. If there’s in-flight internet, why can’t I use my phone on the plane?

But those systems are tested and verified according to the aircraft model and the overall system they’re part of — and some don’t make the cut.

There have been reports of electromagnetic interference testing for particular in-flight Wi-Fi systems that showed interference with aircraft avionics display units.

International inconsistencies

It is also worth pointing out that there are no set international rules on precisely when passengers are allowed to turn on their devices. Most US airlines only allow their use above 10,000 feet (about 3km in altitude).

When landing, some airlines prefer to wait until the plane reaches the gates (as most Australian airlines do) while in China passengers typically pull out their phones as soon as the wheels hit the runway.

In recent years, there have been several moves, as previously discussed, to allow more extensive use of electronics devices in-flight, and the discussion on the matter is still going.

Is your mobile phone going to take an entire aircraft down just because you texted your better half? Probably not.

But what you can potentially create is a distraction to the pilots and aircraft crew and if that happens at the wrong time (say during critical flight phases like take-off or landing) then it may have an impact on safety — is it really worth that risk?

Hamza Bendemra is Researcher (Engineering) at Australian National University. He 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.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I can understand turning on flight mode, but I don’t get why I cant listen to my music during take off and landing. Its also frustrating when theres inconsistencies. Recently on one flight I was allowed to continue using my electronic device right through to the arrivals. But on the return leg the crew asked me to switch off 10 mins out from landing!
    The Mythbusters guys did testing on this a few years ago, and the electromagnetic interference from ‘non transmitting’ devices was negligible. The one thing that did spark up was the 800 – 900MHz range of a mobile phone. On an old ‘unshielded’ setup the interference was bad, but when they tested it in a modern plane even with a signal booster it didn’t effect.

    • Im not having a dig at you but:

      1. The article states all electronic devices emit interference.
      2. Either they didn’t know you were using it or were apathetic about the rules/safety like yourself and the return crew were more vigilant.
      3. Because a combined 30 years of visual effects experience qualifies the mythbusters as avionic safety experts ? When thousands of lives are at stake, they need to do a lot more than a day of testing and in a lot of different conditions.

      It boils down to will 30minutes of being disconnected from your devices kill you ? Unless that device is a pacemaker (or other medical device), probably not.

    • “The Mythbusters guys did testing on this a few years ago, and the electromagnetic interference from ‘non transmitting’ devices was negligible”

      Just on this bit, did they only test one device? Just interested because if you said “OK everyone can just keep stuff turned on” you’ll be dealing with a lot more than just one device (it’d probably end up being more like 1 device per passenger). Maybe they did comment on this in said episode? I dunno, just curious.

    • As I recall, in that Mythbusters episode, they concluded that the interference was “Plausible”, as while they had only very limited success in producing interference, even the pilot who assisted them in the testing stated that he had observed – not all the time, but more than once – PEDs causing enough interference to be potenitally hazardous.

    • I work for a major airline in Australia, and I can say with certainty that while it may not effect the avionics, it does effect the radio. I’ve been sitting in the flight deck and trying to listen to radio calls from ATC when we get the “rapping bee” sound through the headsets.

      Interference isn’t the biggest reason we are asked to turn these devices off.
      Takeoff and landing is the most dangerous time for the flight and we should all have minimal to no distractions during these periods. If anything were to happen, you need to hear the crew’s instructions and have enough situational awareness to see what is going on outside.
      This is the reason windowblinds must be raised as well.

      Say you had a crash landing, a fire onboard or a rejected takeoff and there was an evacuation required… If you have your music blaring away at full volume like everybody does, and you weren’t aware of what was happening around you it could result in something like you jumping up and running the wrong way, interrupting the flow of passengers running for the exits for even a few seconds. A few extra seconds is all it takes for a large number of people to be killed if a fire flashover occurs once the doors are opened and the fire has an unlimited source of oxygen to fuel it. If you’ve ever seen Air Crash Investigation, you’ve seen an actual video of this happen for real.

      It is rare but these things do happen, and you do need to have your wits about you and some situational awareness.

    • Further to that, the increase risk of something like a lithium battery fire is significantly higher if the device is pulling power from the battery.

      If you have a fire in your lap (and you can’t put out a lipo fire without a LOT of water, I’m talking consecutive buckets for a good five minutes the last time I had the misfortune of experiencing one) the cabin crew are strapped into their harnesses and they can not get up to put you out.

      This isn’t as serious on the ground. Of course you can run away from the fire.
      But if this happens on takeoff, it will take a good minimum amount of time for them to be able to land and get everybody out and away from the flames.

  • I don’t think it’s because of the interference. It’s because airlines need you to pay attention and be alert while takeoff and landing just in case something goes wrong. Also, I assume they would want you to watch the safety video just before takeoff so if the plane crashes, you can’t turn around and say you weren’t given clear safety instructions.

    This is just my speculation though. But like you, I’ve had mixed instances where I’ve been made to take off my headphones and at other times, I could just leave them on.

    edit: sorry I meant to reply to your post @matt0

    • Agree, the riskiest moment for a flight is during take off and landing. People need to be alert, hands free, ready to act and follow instruction. Also god help the person sitting next to me and talking over the safety demonstration. I have very little time for the inconsiderate. I will take that inconsideration as permission to step on your face as I make my way to the exit in an emergency situation.

      • i suppose I probably shouldn’t use that time to get in a quick nap, eye mask and all 😉

  • Even if you did turn off your devices, passengers still ignore the safety message. I fly international once a month, I’m disgusted at how passengers just continue their loud conversations during the safety instructions (flight attendants are just trying to do their job professionally). Yesterday i came back on a flight, the couple behind me decided to play a baby’s toy at high volume multiple times whilst the safety instructions were being carried out, almost drowning out the loudspeakers. The instructions take a minute – just shut up and give the flight attendants some respect – I know people hear it many times, but they’re addressing the cabin and you should let them do their job, after all it’s for your benefit.

    Maybe one airline could change attitudes – like giving out a prize for someone who picks out a particular thing in the instruction – something unique every time. You offer something for free and I guarantee people will listen.

    • Without knowing the situation I can only guess here, but it was either going to be the toy to keep the kid entertained and quiet or have the kid screaming its lungs out. Screaming kid is going to distract people more than a toy will.

    • Bugger giving out prizes, they should just leave anyone who doesn’t pay attention beside the runway. Flying isn’t like taking a bus. You need to be alert to what’s going on, if something does go wrong it’s going too go wrong fast when you’re in the sky and relying on your speed to keep you up there

  • A properly operating electronic device probably won’t cause any problems, but there is a chance a malfunctioning device may generate interference (and no it may not be evident to the user). Electronic devices, in particular, mobile phones, computers, wifi/bluetooth capable devices contain resonant circuits and antennas that given the right conditions could generate RF interference. If strong enough this could be detected in the circuitry of the various A/C systems with differing results depending on the interference type. Yes, they are usually screened/protected, but this is never 100% perfect and design is usually based on conditions that would reasonably be expected in this environment.
    Will interference cause the plane to crash? Probably not. Could it distract or cause the pilot/co-pilot undue stress and workload during take-off and landing? Maybe. Personally, I’d like my pilot to be 100% free of distraction when landing the plane. If they want you turn electronic devices off as a risk mitigation strategy, turn em off! Its only 10 minutes out of your precious life.

  • > “As aviation expert and New York Times columnist Christine Negroni wrote recently, there actually have been reported cases of pilots reporting electronic devices interfering with flight systems on commercial flights — issues that subsequently disappeared when the flight crew spotted the offender(s).”

    But a link has NEVER been proven. Not once.

    > “The database showed 75 events over the past seven years in which interferences occurred that pilots and engineers think are linked to cellphones or other electronic devices.”

    75 “events” in more than 120 million flights (according to Boeing’s estimate of the number of flights in 2000). I like those odds.

    Personally I never bother turning my phone off, or even into airplane mode. I put it in my pocket during takeoff and landing to avoid being hassled, but that is all.

    Aircraft electronics are shielded against massive blasts of radiation from radar – to be worried about a phone is truly absurd.

    • 75 events out of 120 million that could have never happened if people followed simple instructions for 10 minutes?
      75 events is still too many.
      1 event is too many.

      • This “events” can be nothing more than a pilot hearing a funny noise in his earphones.

        And none of them, repeat ZERO, were ever proved to be caused by a phone or similar.

        • And so long as you’re just messing with the pilots radio during critical take off and landings, everything is fine?

    • Can you let me know what flights you frequent? Absurd or not, good odds or not, I’d like to avoid them, just in case. 🙂

  • Some planes flying currently are quite old, before mobile phones were ubiquitous, and more importantly before smartphones were ubiquitous.
    Many planes flying were designed before smartphones were ubiquitous, thus their electronic shielding may not be sufficient.
    This didn’t used to be an issue because most people couldn’t make a mobile call from a plane, so they wouldn’t bother trying to use one during takeoff or landing.

    Honestly, you may be in the habit of using your phone a lot, but act like a grown-up and turn it off when your life and hundreds of other people’s are at stake.

    You never know, that train crash in Spain could be caused by a mobile phone interfering with the train’s controls.

    • The Spanish train crash was caused by the driver going to fast. He’s already been charged.

  • Incidentally Virgin will let you use your device until they close the cabin doors on departure and as soon as the plane hits the runway on arrival. Jetstar are not so generous as most times I have been asked to turn my phone off as soon as I’m in my seat on departure and back at the gate on arrival.

    I quite value to the time waiting at the gate to taxi out to use my phone and get some last minute emails or txts out.

  • The whole thing is ridiculous – do you seriously think that if there was ANY chance of an electronic device affecting the safety of an aircraft that you would be allowed to carry them on with you? Of course not. They would be in the same category as matches and explosives.

    And do people seriously think that aircraft which can fly right through thunderstorms and all kinds of crazy EM radiation are not hardened enough to deal with a mobile phone or laptop?

    The reason you can’t use electronic devices during take off and landing is… stupidity. That is all.

    • Combining the author’s figures on interference with @BrettR ‘s figures on flight numbers, it looks like the chance is about 1 in 1,600,000.

      Not sure if that changes your mind, though (it doesn’t change mine).

      • Agreed sparhawk0.
        I might also add that electronics and interference aren’t fully understood by anyone.
        Putting ones faith in electronics doing what its supposed to do is absurd, who can guarantee that a component wont go out of spec or fail and cause interference.
        Also people need to have a bit of respect for authority, no matter how smart we think we are.

  • I just wish there was some kind of electronic equipment in movie theaters that meant that it was a requirement for people to turn off their phones too..

  • I remember a time when people would sit in aeroplanes and no one had an MP3 player, discman, PDA’s, smartphone or tablet (sure there were a handful of people with portable cassette players) and when they landed at their destination, they realised that the world still ticked on. I dont know why know we believe that if we’re not listening to music, playing games, tweeting, commenting, liking, typing, replying, surfing, blogging or watching something on one of our devices that we’ll lose something, or we think so highly of ourselves that we believe that if we disconnect for a few hours the world will turn to chaos.

    Just turn everything off, read a book, sleep, talk to someone or watch the inflight movie.

    • But the TV’s that are showing you the inflight movie may be causing interference!

  • Ok, to the couple of Fools on here (Patrickbateman, BrettR for example), did you completely skip over the part where they mentioned about the NASA study that PROVED the effects that PEDs can have on Aircraft Instrumentation? It clearly shows that there is a risk and there is no GOOD reason to allow that risk just so people can text or call, get over it, you don’t need to be connected 100% of the time.

    I should mention that I am a Pilot and I HATE when I’m sitting on a flight and some idiot completely ignores the Cabin Crew and continues using their device, or keeps it fully turned on and just puts it in the seat pocket in front of them, its Ignorant, Rude and not to mention Illegal as not following the directions of Cabin Crew is an offence and you should not be surprised to find the AFP waiting for you at the other end.

    PEDs used on Flights (ie, Inflight Entertainment, iPads that some are using etc…) Have been specifically tested and shown not to cause interference to the specific Aircraft it is installed in, your device has not been, so deal with it.

    I am completely astounded that there are still people out there who think its alright for them to ignore these warnings just because “Its never happened to me”, why would you want to keep pushing your luck and potentially be the first? Pilots hate how people like that take not only our passenger and crew members lives into their hands but our own. Every. Single. Day! You’re risk might be 1 in a million, but when you fly for a living that number gets lowered considerably.

    And to the argument of “Then why can we use them at certain times like in cruise or on the ground, but not on Takeoff or Landing? That just shows its not really an issue”, firstly there are aircraft that use their GPS equipment not only for Flying but also when they are taxiing around particularly complicated airports, these systems overlay their position on a map of the aircraft and assist them in getting around. Secondly, the Pilots are on the ground getting those instruments ready for your departure and are testing them to make sure they are correctly set and indicating as expected, you may be able to use them up until the door is closed because this generally occurs after the doors have been closed and they have received their clearances. Thirdly in the cruise a lot of aircraft use various instruments to check their position, whilst on TakeOff or Landing they may only be using one particular one with no acceptable way of comparing it to another to check its accuracy, for instance an ILS Approach uses just the ILS for them, they can compare to the GPS but this is not always an option as the ILS requires very very precise accuracy at all times, whilst in the cruise half a mile off track generally isn’t such an issue.

    Sorry for the novel, but this issue really gets my back up every time as it does with the vast majority of Pilots.

    • There is no such study. If you believe there is link it (directly, not a mention of it in some other article).

      Could you be referring to this one?: http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20050041677_2005041601.pdf
      FYI it states: “Additional testing on a wide sample of different commercial cell phones did not result in any emission in the 1575 MHz GPS Band above the noise floor of the measurement receiver. ”

      And if I’m a fool, so are 30% of Americans (read the first link in the article) 😛

      • Can’t decide if that’s some excellent sardonic humour or an incredibly self-defeating argument.

        I’m going to assume it’s the former and say nice one 😀

      • BrettR, you can’t honestly be that silly can you? The Study is linked to in this Article:
        And just incase you can’t get to that link and can’t be bothered reading this Article Properly, i’ll give you this quote from the Conclusions of that study:
        “the data clearly indicates that not only were some events judged as having a critical effect on a system, but they also happened during critical states of flight specifically landings and take-offs.”
        The entire thing honestly couldn’t be any clearer!! I do love how you tell me to read a part of the article when you have clearly glossed over a bunch of parts of the article!!

        I’m really hoping sparhawk0 is correct and you’re just trolling….

  • Landed at Hamilton Island on Monday I get off the plane, turn around, pull out my phone and take a photo of my family getting off the plane. One of the ground crew yells to me to put my phone away because of the fuel tank. . . Says the guy with his own cb radio, mobile phone, riding on the luggage collection cart.

    Don’t believe the hype! Says me who use to program and run air traffic control training simulators, also an ex-air traffic controller and whos family owns their own plane.

    Being well versed in air safety and air traffic crash investigation was part of my job.

    • Warcroft, i’d be a little amazed if you advocated to the people you trained that it was fine to use Mobile Devices whilst they were actively controlling. Of course this could be why ASA is probably going to be the next group due for a Senate Inquiry after the recent findings of very large numbers of incidents occurring, I believe the ever incredible Senator X is pushing on that one!!

      I’m going to assume as well that the Aircraft you own is probably a Light Aircraft and mostly steam driven as opposed to Glass, most likely operated VFR and therefore far less susceptible to the interference being discussed?

      Anyone truly interested in “Air Safety” and “Air Traffic Crash Investigation” would be well aware of the proven effects PEDs can have on Aircraft (See above for the NASA Link), in particular larger aircraft that are mostly Glass Cockpits and for the most part run on Automation. Surely you would also know that irrespective of whether its “Hype” or not the laws are very clear, especially in Australia on the use of such devices.

      Below is why you are not allowed to use your Device:
      Subsection 4 of CAO 20.9 sets out CASA’s directions under subregulation 235 (7) of CAR 1988 for loading fuel on aircraft. Under paragraph 4.2.2 of CAO 20.9, the operator of an aircraft that has an underwing fuelling system must ensure that fuel is not loaded while passengers are on board, or entering or leaving, the aircraft unless certain conditions are met. One condition, in sub‑subparagraph 4.2.2 (a) (iii), is that passengers must be told that they may not use any electrical equipment (as this might cause fuel vapours to ignite). Under subparagraph 4.2.2 (b), passengers must obey this instruction.

      Under subparagraph 4.4.3 (b) of CAO 20.9, a person must not, and the pilot in command and the operator must take reasonable steps to ensure that the person does not, operate electrical equipment within 15 metres of the aircraft’s fuel tank filling points, vent outlets or ground fuelling equipment unless the equipment has been inspected and complies with Appendix I of CAO 20.9.

      And now we have why he is allowed to:
      Outside the cabin

      The conditions also provide that only a designated member of the aircraft operator’s operations personnel (a designated operations person) may use a device outside the cabin of the aircraft and then only subject to restrictions.

      The person may only use a device outside the cabin of the aircraft if it is used outside the 3 metre fuelling zone. The aircraft operator must have trained the person how to identify the fuelling zones associated with relevant aircraft, not to use a device within those zones, to be aware of risks associated with distraction when using a device and how to mitigate those risks. The aircraft operator must have already ensured for the operation, or a class of operations including the operation, that radio frequency emissions will not affect the aircraft’s systems or that procedures are established that will correct any effect the emissions may have before the engines are started.

      And of course it is fine for us as Pilots to use them on our own aircraft (Talking Private Flights and Light Aircraft here on VFR Operations) as there are laws allowing us to make the determination on if our devices will be fine or not. Under NZ CAA Rules 91.7 which states that only IFR aircraft have the restrictions. Can’t quite remember the CASA Laws exactly regarding that as I don’t operate there anymore and can’t be bothered going and doing any more digging right now!!

      So yes, let’s all hear about how well versed you are in “air safety and air traffic crash investigation”.

      • This is not a discussion about the laws regarding mobile phone use. It is about if consumer electronic devices can affect aircraft. . . which they don’t. And which is why those laws are up for review.
        All you’ve done is shoot off at the mouth with insignificancies to the discussion.

        In regards to the ASA incidents.
        That would have to do with the serious lack of ATC controllers, low numbers of new/experienced ATC’s coming through and the extra strain put onto existing controllers to pick up the slack.
        Not to mention the development and implementation of the new control program and hardware, especially following so close behind the previous ATC system.
        ATC’s are under enough strain just doing their every day job, let alone the issues above.
        As for me, I got out of the game about 13 years ago and have been a lot happier because of it.

        • Try again Warcroft, the title of the article is “Why you still have to switch your mobile phone off on planes”, simple answer is “IT IS ILLEGAL” so quoting the actual Laws is absolutely significant to the discussion. The next logical question is then “WHY IS IT ILLEGAL?” and that is because there is evidence that proves that Mobile Phones can/have caused accidents/incidents in regards to Refuelling and Navigation of Aircraft and even though it is a 1 in a Million chance you have to consider the fact that there are Millions of flights every single day and not having these laws in place would allow that 1 in a Million to potentially happen every single day.

          And you said “It is about if consumer electronic devices can affect aircraft. . . which they don’t.” which is obviously wrong as evidenced by not only the NASA Research linked to in the article but other numerous studies, here an excerpt from the Boeing Website
          “Boeing conducted a laboratory and airplane test with 16 cell phones typical of those carried by passengers, to determine the emission characteristics of these intentionally transmitting PEDs. The laboratory results indicated that the phones not only produce emissions at the operating frequency, but also produce other emissions that fall within airplane communication/navigation frequency bands (automatic direction finder, high frequency, very high frequency [VHF] omni range/locator, and VHF communications and instrument landing system [ILS]). Emissions at the operating frequency were as high as 60 dB over the airplane equipment emission limits, but the other emissions were generally within airplane equipment emission limits. One concern about these other emissions from cell phones is that they may interfere with the operation of an airplane communication or navigation system if the levels are high enough.”

          Seriously, its illegal, there are plenty of reports of interference being caused so there is no point in taking the risk.

          Can’t blame you for getting out of ATC, the muppets in charge now (The Suits/Management, not the coal face guys!) are doing an absolutely hamfisted job of the whole thing. All in all I think the reason for all the incidents IMHO started the day it was all privatised and management muppets started seeing bonuses in their future for cutting costs!

  • would it not be better to build a plane that can not be downed my a mobil phone than to get
    hundreds of thousand of people to turn them off

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