Why Do We Turn Cell Phones Off On Airplanes?

Have you ever wondered why you have to turn your cell phone off during flights? Here's the 'logic' behind it.

It’s just one of the seemingly irrational procedures that the modern-day flyer is forced to accept. After you’ve hustled through security with your miniature bottles of liquids in clear wallets, made your way to the departure gate, and stowed your bags, you’re ready to settle down and continue reading that article or book. But if you’re unfortunate enough to read with a kindle or tablet, that’ll have to wait until you reach the arbitrary height of 10,000 feet in altitude. While you endure the boredom of a device-less pre-flight taxi, you might ask yourself: why do I have to turn off my electronics? Would it make any difference if I were sending a text right now? You’re not alone in wondering, here are the answers.

Has there ever been a plane crash because someone didn’t turn off their cell phone?

No. Not a single plane crash has ever been attributed to interference from passengers’ electronics – we should hope so too, about 30 percent of us don’t bother to obey flight attendants when they ask us to turn off our gadgets.

Have personal electronics ever contributed to a minor problem during a flight?

Yes, though there isn’t a lot of data on it. NASA has compiled a list of anecdotes about electronics causing all kinds of midflight mishaps. Some of them are kind of humorous and admittedly have nothing to do with interference, like case 973766. Here’s NASA’s synopsis:

“A passenger’s Kindle Reader was crushed when a First Class Sleeper seat was retracted causing a fire and smoke. A Flight Attendant put the fire out while the flight crew accomplished the Smoke and Fire Checklist, including declaring an emergency.”

So why am I asked to power down?

Good question. Airlines are afraid that personal electronics could hamper the avionics equipment in the cockpit, which are used for navigation. Almost all personal electronics, including tablets, laptops, cell phones, e-books, and handheld gaming consoles emit radio waves. If those radio waves have a frequency that’s too similar to the ones used by the navigational apparatus, then the radar, communications, and collision avoidance technologies could be altered – in theory. Protecting the airplane’s communications etc. during take off and landing is deemed to be especially important.

But there’s limited evidence to suggest that any of this actually happens in practice. These rules were created as precautionary principle decades ago – just in case interference proved to be a real problem. It’s worth noting that many airlines now provide onboard Wi-Fi, which requires your device to connect with a router via radio waves. The extent to which electrical interference is an issue remains to be definitively proven either way. This is why the Federal Aviation Administration still officially stands by its precautionary rules, stating, “There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and the cell phone give off.” This remains the logic behind the “power down” rules.

Will they ever let us check texts at taxi?

Possibly. Airplane manufacturers like Boeing are trying to come up with ways to minimize any electrical interference that may occur and it was announced recently that an FAA committee had recommended the rules be relaxed. They advised that passengers shouldn’t be forbidden from using personal electronics during take off, taxi, and landing. But there is a caveat; they have to be in flight safe mode. So you wouldn’t be able to send texts and emails, but at least you’d be able to read, listen to music, and watch TV.

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