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Why bother call it AIRPLANE mode if you can't use it on an AIRPLANE?
June 27, 2010 12:38 PM   Subscribe

What's Up With THAT?! Filter: On a recent flight, I was told that an iPhone - even on Airplane mode - was an unapproved device and needed to be fully shut off. Um. Why?

I've seen this question and previously have flown with no issues, but on my recent vacation I was told on both legs of the trip that iPhones on Airplane Mode were NOT approved for use. What would be the rationale for this? Why is an iPod Touch ok and an iPhone on Airplane Mode specifically un ok?

(This point was driven home by the crew - and subsequently ignored - many times. I counted three iPhones ... I mean "iPods"...in my row alone.)
posted by grapefruitmoon to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Were you on a different airline than one you usually fly? iPhones in airplane mode have been allowed on the domestic flights I've been on, so this seems weird to me too.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:47 PM on June 27, 2010


Because they'd rather just throw down a blanket restriction instead of making sure people are actually using airplane mode.
posted by zsazsa at 12:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Was this on multiple flights or on one particular one? I don't fly an incredible amount, but in my limited experience the flight crews tend to interpret the "approved electronics" concept based on their own particular whims.

While I agree that it's better to be safe than sorry, I also believe that the whole concept of switching off low-powered consumer electronics for the safety of the aircraft is really growing laughable. The whole bloomin' plane is awash in RF, both in the environment and generated internally. All the problems I've ever heard of caused by RF in things like vehicle ABS and the like were caused by higher power systems like CB linear amps churning up 1500 watts.

On the plus side, the interior of an airliner at altitude is the last place anywhere you're safe from listening to someone yapping on a cell phone.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:51 PM on June 27, 2010


Trans-Atlantic. Two different airlines. Have taken other international flights with no problems.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:51 PM on June 27, 2010


There's no universal answer for this. The airline in question is free to adopt whatever policies on electronic devices it chooses, for potentially no good reason. Individual pilots or crew have repeatedly misinterpreted or modified these policies in a more conservative manner, banning more than even airline policy requires. Just because Apple gives you an "airplane mode" does not give you an entitlement to use it on every airline.

I assure you that there are other airlines and crew that will allow you to use an iPhone in airplane mode.
posted by grouse at 12:51 PM on June 27, 2010


what airline was it?
posted by seawallrunner at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2010


What airline?

I'm going to guess the flight crew said it was an FAA or other government regulation but that simply isn't true. You should contact the airline and ask them to show them either the US government regulation or their own airlines' rule so that you can be sure to fly another airline in the future. What you'll probably hear from the airline is that the iPhone in Airplane mode is perfectly OK to use on the plane (except during takeoff/landing blah blah blah). I've been flying with iPhones for three years in several countries and on several airlines but never heard the iPhone being prohibited. If the word "iPhone" is said it is usually along with Blackberry in that a) they have to be in airplane mode and b) must be shut off for takeoff and landing.

An iPhone is just like any other phone in Airplane Mode. Signaling it out specifically sounds like bad information to their crew.
posted by birdherder at 12:54 PM on June 27, 2010


From the FAA:

Electronics on Board
The FCC and FAA ban cell phones for airborne use because its signals could interfere with critical aircraft instruments. Radios and televisions are also prohibited.

Laptops and other personal electronic devices (PEDs) such as hand-held computer games and tape or CD players are also restricted to use above 10,000 feet owing to concerns they could interfere with aircraft instrumentation.


Now, sure, you can argue all of this, and argue the meaning of "airplane mode." Or you can be a stewardess tired of arguing about it and go, "An iPhone is a phone. You can't use it. Period."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:55 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd never advocate arguing with a flight attendant as it never works out well. They can ban whatever they want, more or less.

That being said, the rules are stupid and poorly enforced, as they have always been. If you look at FAA document AC 91.21-1B - Use of Portable Electronic Devices Aboard Aircraft, section 7, you'll see what I mean. Technically, laptops aren't allowed to be turned on (assuming they have wi-fi). This has always been acting and always will be. You'll get told put your iphone away while the guy next to you cranks away on his 3g Ipad which isn't even in airplane mode.
posted by yeoldefortran at 1:08 PM on June 27, 2010


Poorly trained or lazy (or tired or cranky) flight crew.
posted by Ookseer at 1:08 PM on June 27, 2010


Cool Papa Bell: Now, sure, you can argue all of this, and argue the meaning of "airplane mode." Or you can be a stewardess tired of arguing about it and go, "An iPhone is a phone. You can't use it. Period."

By the same reasoning, a phone that has an airplane mode is safe to use on, you know, an airplane.

Personally, I would write to the airline(s) in question with a proper stamp and everything, and ask them, in light of your recent experience, to clarify their policy on the use of wifi-disabled iPhones in airplane mode on trans-Atlantic flights.

You'd either get interesting answers why you cannot use it, or (more likely) letters you can bring with you on your next flight.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:10 PM on June 27, 2010


I have been told to turn mine completely off during take off and landing but used it freely to watch movies and play games in flight mode during both US domestic and international flights to Brazil and Mexico. I set it to flight mode before I turn it off so that I don't inadvertently crash the plane (yes, that's sarcasm) but I've never had a problem otherwise so WTF?
posted by tamitang at 1:15 PM on June 27, 2010


You'll get told put your iphone away while the guy next to you cranks away on his 3g Ipad which isn't even in airplane mode.

Yeah, this exact thing happened. My partner was using his iPad (with WiFi turned off) after announcements were made that iPhones (and yes, also, Blackberries) had to be turned off.

The airlines in question are TAP Portugal and Sata.

I was just wondering if this was really arbitrary or if there was an actual reason as many, many things that appear arbitrary about flight (i.e., opening the window shades during landing) have actual legitimate reasons. I guess this one isn't one of them.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:17 PM on June 27, 2010


yeoldefortran: It's not just assuming laptops have wifi - they don't want *any* electronics turned on due to fears of interference, as anything electronic emits RF on some level that could be interfering.
posted by TravellingDen at 1:25 PM on June 27, 2010


What would be the rationale for this? Why is an iPod Touch ok and an iPhone on Airplane Mode specifically un ok?

In the end, because they say so. It may not make sense at times, but it's their plane, their rules, and you agree to follow them when you buy the tickets and get on board. You're always free to find another way to travel if you dislike turning off your devices, I guess.
posted by Menthol at 1:42 PM on June 27, 2010


I've recently heard this on BMI and KLM. When I flew South African staff checked that I really did only have an iPod and not an iPhone. It does seem arbitrary, but they could argue they are only now treating iPhones the same as phones without a flight mode, which are supposed to stay off.

FWIW, one of my friends is a jumbo pilot and most certainly uses his iPhone in flight. He adds pictures from the flightdeck to his Facebook page (once he's back on the ground, of course).
posted by wingless_angel at 1:58 PM on June 27, 2010


I guess this one isn't one of them.

Sorry, asking people to turn off their multi-band radio transmitting equipment is reasonable. Cellular phone radios transmit to towers continuously, even when you are not talking, and even when the phone is turned off. It's inherent in the design of the network - the phone always needs to know the nearest tower. When you're in the air, the radio in the phone is continuously searching for service because it can't reach towers. And we're not even talking about bluetooth, wifi, etc. Which are also radios, on different swaths of spectrum. My Nokia has no less than 5 different radios operating in 5 different bands. I don't even know which.

Deliberate transmission is only one part of the equation. All these little circuits continuously emit RF that was not intentional. Radios always produce spurious signals. This is why your GSM phone can "bump" your speakers before a call or text comes in. Furthermore, what if someone's phone is messed up somehow? Who knows what it might be doing, it could be putting out all kinds of ugly noise.

Then you have the issue that these are software controlled radios in your pocket. What if the latest iPhone OS has a firmware bug that makes airplane mode not work? You'd never know -- you have never seen a radio wave, and you never will. "Airplane mode" is software control, and there's good reason not to trust software control on a new piece of Apple hardware, or any other hardware for that matter.

It's really not unreasonable to ask people to turn off radios emitting broadband radiation during flight. You're inside a thin aluminum tube (which contains those radio waves, making it like frantically pissing in an RF pool that you and the nav equipment are floating in) while flying thousands of feet in the air, or straining to get there. The plane itself continuously uses radio devices to stay located and airborne. Can it be so hard to see that your radio might interfere with theirs? And how that might endanger every single life on board?

After all, just a tiny bit of ice can crash a plane. Imagine what a properly aimed radio transmitter could do.
posted by fake at 2:03 PM on June 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


I was just wondering if this was really arbitrary or if there was an actual reason as many, many things that appear arbitrary about flight (i.e., opening the window shades during landing) have actual legitimate reasons.

Simplicity and enforceability are legitimate reasons.

Having a few categories (phone/non-phone, electronic gadget/non-electronic gadget) is easy to enforce. Having a thousand categories (with details of every make/model of gadget to verify whether it has an "airplane mode") is impossible to enforce. It's also impossible to enforce a person's actually using airplane mode.

Sure, the rules are a bit ham-fisted. But the choice is between general/enforceable rules and specific/unenforceable rules -- the latter being indistinguishable from having no rules at all.
posted by astrochimp at 2:05 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


A stewardess came and asked me at the start of an Air China flight if I had a smartphone switched on. I guess I must have had bluetooth or wireless left on, and someone had actually picked up the fact that the device was broadcasting an English name, to approach the westerner in my section of the plane.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:14 PM on June 27, 2010


fake: I totally understand the reasoning behind not having phones allowed on, totally. My misunderstanding was when the phones had the phone functionality turned off no longer being allowed.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:33 PM on June 27, 2010


TravellingDen: was referring specifically to the document I referenced, which places laptops with wifi in the same category as cell phones.
posted by yeoldefortran at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2010


I totally understand the reasoning behind not having phones allowed on, totally.

Ah, sorry if I came off a bit preachy there. I agree with you that things seem a bit arbitrary, but the reason I went on like that is because the phone part being off is a software switch, so there might be some reason.
posted by fake at 3:34 PM on June 27, 2010


I was a asked about five years ago to tun off my little point and shoot digital camera when we were coming in for landing. I was taking pics of the river we were flying over. Totally ridiculous, but hey, their rules. Now I hide my camera under a scarf or something when they come by - I like my aerial pics!
posted by amanda at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have found this rule to be enforced almost entirely on the whims of the cabin crew.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 PM on June 27, 2010


Seconding desuetude.

On Delta flying back and forth MSP -> ORD just about every week this year, I've heard "Turn off cel phone transmitters" and "Turn devices completely off, including phones with airplane mode" and things in between.
posted by chazlarson at 7:35 PM on June 27, 2010


Digital cameras are actually very RF-noisy. At a radio observatory I worked at we asked visitors to not use digital cameras within a mile of the telescopes, and we could easily detect cameras taking pictures even further away than that.

But let's be at least somewhat realistic about the issues. An airplane does not rely on radio to "stay airborne". VHF Radios are used for navigation, but supplemented by (or they supplement) GPS and inertial navigation. Navigation by VHF isn't terribly precise anyways, so I'd be very surprised if incidental interference could do anything noticeable. The one case where it does matter is an ILS landing, and of course all electronics are supposed to be off once you descend past 10,000ft.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:46 PM on June 27, 2010


Most of what fake said is irrelevant. Cellular/WiFi/Bluetooth radios will not interfere with an airplane's RF systems. Period. There is virtually no mechanism through which this could occur - even when intermodulation between various signals is considered. Airplanes pass above cellular, radio and TV towers all the time when they take off and land - exposing them to RF that is much stronger than what is possible with your phone. The airplane does not crash because it's systems have been designed to reject spurious RF. There has never been a single crash or near miss or anything which has been attributed to cell phone use - ever - even thought many people don't bother to shut off their phones.

It is pure, 100% myth that a cell phone can impact any facet of a modern aircraft's navigation or communication system, any more than your cell phone can cause my GPS receiver to fail. Even if the electrical insulation on an airplane failed in a manner than caused spurious RF to enter the system in a significant amount, the chances of the signals combining in a way that could significantly impact the flight operation is slim. Either way, such a serious fault would be apparent long before the airplane was in the air.
posted by I_am_jesus at 7:51 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is pure, 100% myth that a cell phone can impact any facet of a modern aircraft's navigation or communication system,

Mythbusters
.

Airplanes pass above cellular, radio and TV towers all the time

Those towers are not inside the can.

it's systems have been designed to reject spurious RF.

No filter is perfect. No aircraft is perfectly maintained.

even when intermodulation between various signals is considered.

It was demonstrated that GPS and DME band emissions occur, due to intermodulation between GSM and other wireless handset types


It is pure, 100% myth that a cell phone can impact any facet of a modern aircraft's navigation or communication system

ARSR reports from 1987 to 1994 disagree with you, as do anecdotal data from pilots in the same article.

And to add to the anecdata, in my last flight from NYC to LA, I could hear my own GSM buzz on the intercom.

Since I don't have a dog in this fight, but I do like to provide links to back up my assertions, check out Wikipedia, which has a more balanced and better-referenced take on the question of EMI and aircraft.
posted by fake at 10:32 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


There has never been a single crash or near miss or anything which has been attributed to cell phone use - ever - even thought many people don't bother to shut off their phones.

Yet.
posted by gjc at 5:44 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the wiki article (from fake), every study has recorded no "smoking gun" or causal relationship between interference and cell phones. The "big metal box" principle you spoke of makes no sense since all of the important antennas are external.

The intermod article you linked has some problems - specifically that the numbers produced are not "real world." In an anechoic chamber it is easy to find intermod because there is no multipath. Give me the same test set up and I will show you that my dog puts out enough stray RF to stop a pacemaker. They did a reflection test, but they placed the devices a few feet away from an antenna (again, which is on the outside of the plane, being exposed to kilowatt transmitters all the time) and they still only found intermod below the FCC limits. Furthermore, this was using analog AMPS and a first generation IS-95 device - both standards that are no longer being used. Modern cell phone transmissions are about 10dB down from the AMPS system, which has not been used since 2001 IIRC.

Look, I am an ECE graduate student, and am writing a thesis on intelligent signal detection and classification. I have had this discussion with many of my peers and the consensus is that it is almost 100% bogus. The only people I hear claiming otherwise are pilots, who seem somewhat confused about the technical details of wireless communications. Even after trying as hard as possible to prove that it is a problem, not a single paper exists (that I am aware of) showing with any degree of certainty that cell phones could bring down an airplane in real world tests.
posted by I_am_jesus at 7:02 AM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


WiFi and commercial flights: Alaska Airlines: In-Flight WiFi.
I use it all the time.
posted by Fuzzy Dog at 9:12 AM on June 28, 2010


Can it be so hard to see that your radio might interfere with theirs? And how that might endanger every single life on board?

After all, just a tiny bit of ice can crash a plane. Imagine what a properly aimed radio transmitter could do.


This line of thinking is really not logical at all.

I_am_jesus is right on this - the FAA did multiple studies loading every single seat on a plane with electronic gadgets turned on and were never able to replicate a single problem.
posted by odinsdream at 9:41 AM on June 28, 2010


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