What Does Airplane Mode Do? And Can It Save Battery Life?

If you’ve been on a commercial plane in recent years, you’ve probably heard a flight attendant instruct passengers to switch all mobile devices over to airplane mode or power them down entirely. Federal FAA regulations also back up this request.

But is there any evidence that cell signals actually interfere with the plane? And what does airplane mode do to cell phones? Are there other advantages to using airplane mode, and what are the approved ways to gain internet access aboard a flight?

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To answer some of these questions, we’ve enlisted the expertise of technology specialist Michael Collins. Michael is the director of Sphere IT, a corporate tech support provider in the United Kingdom.

What Is Airplane Mode (aka Flight Mode)?

Nearly every modern smartphone, tablet and laptop has a little airplane icon that allows users to enable airplane mode, which essentially shuts down wireless reception in order to prevent interference with navigation and comms equipment aboard the plane.

Collins says, “Airplane mode is a feature used on most modern smartphones that turns off the phone’s radio and wireless hardware. This prevents the phone from sending and receiving calls, texts, emails and data over the mobile network.”

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Some wireless devices won’t connect to cellular or WiFi networks while in airplane mode; other mobile devices will also allow Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity to be switched back on while still technically remaining in airplane mode, but cellular service is always blocked.

Regardless, your smart device will still be able to edit documents, display photos and play any music or video media that has been locally stored. (And yes, you can still connect to your Bluetooth headphones while in airplane mode.)

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How Does a Wireless Signal Affect Air Travel?

Basically, when you switch airplane mode on, you’re doing a favor to the flight crew and your fellow passengers by ensuring that no radio signals from your phone will interfere with the aircraft’s communication devices or navigation systems.

Collins explains, “Airlines request customers to use airplane mode to avoid disruption of signals on the plane. Airplanes require many advanced navigation and communication systems to keep them in the air and steer safely to their destination, but mobile phones use the same frequencies. So when you’re on a plane, your phone’s signal can interfere with the airplane’s onboard systems.”

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What Are the Risks of Disabling Airplane Mode on a Flight?

CNN reported that, out of 283,300 U.S. flights between 2003 and 2009, there were only 75 instances of suspected electronic interference causing equipment glitches. To this day, no airline accident has been definitively linked to cell phone use. These airplane mode rules are potentially a holdover from a time when we didn’t fully understand the cellular signals coming in.

Still, it’s in your best interest to comply with FAA regulations. At cruising altitude, your device will be much too high above cell towers to get any kind of reliable signal, so there’s no real downside to using airplane mode aboard the flight.

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How to Enable Airplane Mode on an iPhone

Open Control Center.

Tap the airplane icon.

To turn off airplane mode, go back to Control Center and tap the airplane icon again.

Apple also allows users to mirror your phone’s setting on your Apple Watch (or vice versa). To have your smartwatch mirror your iPhone, open the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, then navigate to General > Airplane Mode > Mirror iPhone.

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How to Enable Airplane Mode on an Android Device

Switching to airplane mode on your Android phone or device is just as easy:

Open the Settings app.

Find and open the Network & internet section.

Tap the icon for Airplane mode to turn it on/off.

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How to Connect to In-flight WiFi

Despite cellular limitations, many flyers still demand to read e-mails or use messaging apps during their flight. As a response, many major U.S. and international airlines have added built-in WiFi aboard aircraft. Most typically activate WiFi service above altitudes of 10,000 feet, because the greatest risk of interference is during takeoff and landing operations.

Delta offers free in-flight WiFi to Skymiles members on the majority of domestic flights, and customers can confirm availability on their particular flight using the Delta app. Before connecting to the internet, flyers will need to enter their Skymiles info for verification.

American Airlines AAdvantage members can purchase WiFi passes where available. These passes last for a single flight, and typically cost between $10-20. For frequent flyers, a monthly subscription pass is also available for $49.95 on one device, and $59.95 for two devices. To purchase a pass, you will need to use your AA log-in and have an active credit card saved to the account.

On United Airlines, WiFi is available on all North American routes for a rate of $10 per flight. MileagePlus members get a discounted rate of $8, or 800 miles. Members also have the option to purchase a monthly plan for $49, or 7,500 miles. Additionally, T-Mobile customers have the ability to connect to the network for free, as long as they have WiFi calling enabled.

Southwest offers WiFi on available flights for $8 per device, or free for current A-List Preferred Members.

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Does Enabling Airplane Mode Save Battery?

“In addition to preventing interference, airplane mode also helps conserve your phone’s battery. Most phones use much battery power when connected to the mobile network, so airplane mode can help your battery last longer,” says Collins.

A 2016 test by Wirecutter on both iOS and Android devices showed that browsing media in airplane mode caused the phone’s batteries to degrade only a few percent over four hours. By contrast, the batteries dropped up to 10% over the same time period with wireless functions enabled.

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In situations where a power source isn’t available, turn airplane mode on to stretch your device’s precious battery life. Just remember that airplane mode disables your access to cellular data, so don’t expect to be able to send text messages or make cell phone calls in this battery-saving mode. The mode can also be great to avoid annoyances in quiet places like movie theaters.

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