What’s the Deal With Airplane Mode on Planes?

Tom Wambsgans's momentous inflight call in "Succession" raises some questions

A person holding white smartphone turning on airplane mode. Is the phone setting really necessary during flight?
Does anyone really need to turn on airplane mode?

Unless you’ve been living in a hyperbaric chamber for the past few days, you already know that this week’s episode of Succession was a real humdinger.

Without giving too much away, there was one thing I was initially struck by that I ended up forgetting about for obvious reasons (that plot twist chief among them), until I was reminded by Afar’s Billie Cohen — which is how much time Tom Wambsgans spends on the phone at an implied cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.

As Cohen posits, the Roys and company are not known for their strict adherence to the guidelines set forth for them by the rest of society, so it’s not particularly surprising to see Wambsgans — or Karolina, Frank and Karl, for that matter — sidestepping airplane mode, albeit understandable given the circumstances. However, not turning off cellular service inflight has been packaged and presented to the masses as being a cardinal sin of air travel, as it is purportedly highly unsafe.

But is it actually?

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Well, according to the FAA’s Safety Information page, “The FCC and FAA ban cell phones for airborne use because its signals could interfere with critical aircraft instruments. Devices must be used in airplane mode or with the cellular connection disabled. You may use the Wi-Fi connection on your device if the plane has an installed Wi-Fi system and the airline allows its use.” There are documented instances of such interferences, too. In short, using the cellular connection on your smartphone is about as unsafe as anything that interferes with critical aircraft instruments is.

That said, flight attendants don’t come around and check every phone to make sure it’s on airplane mode, so it’s no secret that you could skirt the rule if you felt so inclined. Though, even if you don’t turn your cellular service off…you still probably won’t get service. Or at least good service.

“If the plane is low enough (generally below 10,000 feet), cellular calls might be able to connect, though they’d be pinging different cell towers as the plane moved, so the connection probably wouldn’t be great and could interfere with ground networks,” the Afar report notes. “Above that altitude, it’s unlikely you’d be able to make a cellular call unless the plane was outfitted with its own mobile service.” Unfortunately, unless you’re flying private a la the Roys, your plane is most likely not outfitted with its own mobile service, so, yes — you will need to power that thing down.

And a separate but equally important note, lest there be any confusion, you cannot demand to speak to the pilot mid-flight, either.


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