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Grab your iPhone or iPad, dive into Settings, and you’ll find Airplane Mode. It’s a handy little feature, but not everyone seems to know what it actually does and how it affects your phone’s many other functions.
Does your phone charge faster in Airplane Mode? Will your alarm still work? Can you use Bluetooth? Here’s what you need to know.
What Does It Do?
If you turn on Airplane Mode either under the Settings menu or by flicking up to reveal Control Center, you’ll notice a few small differences on your device’s interface: you’ll immediately see carrier settings disappear, along with any semblance of Internet signal and reception. These will be replaced by a small silhouette of an airplane.
You can find the feature on most devices, not just your iPhone and iPad but also other smartphones, tablets, and laptops. It suspends signals on radio-frequency in an effort to stop interference. That means you won’t be able to send text messages, receive or make calls, or use Wi-Fi so iMessages are also moot. While you’re not technically prohibited from getting calls, actually answering them requires transmission of signals, so it won’t work. You’ll also not use up any cellular data.
GPS gets a little messier. You’re not actually transmitting any signals, merely receiving them. Still, it largely depends on the airline as to whether that’s allowed or not, so Airplane Mode deactivates this function as default. In some situations, there’s a way around it, but it’s not ideal: you’d need to turn Wi-Fi back on (it’s also found in Settings) after switching to Airplane Mode. This will tell your approximate position by locating the nearest cell tower.
I turned my phone to Airplane mode and threw it up in the air, Worst transformer ever?
— Asad (@HisDreadsTho) August 9, 2016
Fortunately, many firms let you use Bluetooth apart from during take-off and landing because Class 2 devices, including iPhones, have a very low range (roughly 10m) which shouldn’t affect the plane’s systems; indeed, some aircraft have their own Wi-Fi, which has a greater range anyway. If you do want to manually turn this on, you’ll find it in the same Settings and Control Center menus as Airplane Mode and Wi-Fi.
It’s 2016: Do Smartphones Really Affect Aircraft?
Sort of, but probably not the way you’re expecting.
In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission banned any calls made by passengers while in the air for fear they would interfere with electronic equipment on the airplane and towers on the ground. Airplane Mode was introduced in 2013 after a recommendation by the Federal Aviation Administration to let travellers use their smartphones in some capacity typically when the craft reaches over 10,000 feet.
I'm having a bit of bother putting my phone into airplane mode.
Any tech folk out there that can help? pic.twitter.com/GIGOlyNDLV
— joe heenan (@joeheenan) August 4, 2016
Since that ruling 25 years ago, the ban has been questioned numerous times, but prevailing logic has erred on the side of caution, especially when so many lives could potentially be at stake. Not using electronic devices does at least put passengers’ minds at rest (and stop any ongoing calls annoying the whole plane). Nonetheless, there’s no evidence that signals from a portable device have ever resulted in a crash.
The notable reason not to use your phone when in the air is that it can cause some interference with radio-signals, risking annoying the pilots and air traffic controllers or even making them miss a crucial message. One pilot explained:
“[If] say 50 people on board are inconsiderate enough, who can’t be bothered to switch their cell radio off, there will be 50 phones constantly looking for cell towers at maximum power. That is a lot of radio pollution… Transmitting cell phones can cause audible interference on the aircraft’s radios. You’ve probably heard this interference yourself when a phone is set near a speaker. It sounds like a “dit-dit-dit-dit” tone and it’s pretty annoying. Anyone who has had to track down audio interference in a sound system understands.”
That’s pretty rare, but does show that even sending an SMS can affect a craft.
Some companies have installed base stations, called picocells, which are about the size of a ream of A4 paper, on board: these relay phone signals to satellites, via a different frequency, that then transmit that data to terrestrial base stations. The picocells’ proximity to passengers means they can operate on very low power.
What Other Reasons Might You Use Airplane Mode?
It’s not just a helpful function for when you’re on an airplane, Airplane Mode has all sorts of uses.
In fact, I use Airplane Mode every day. You should too. The most important reason is that those rumors are true: your phone charges faster in Airplane Mode! In fact, it’s your battery’s friend whether it’s trying to charge or if it’s merely trying to survive a little longer. Roaming and searching for nearby Wi-Fi or GPS uses up quite a bit of power, so Airplane Mode stops your smartphone from looking for signal connections. With those functions disabled, the energy you would be using stays in the battery. Think of it as your smartphone focusing its attention solely on recharging.
While some think the decreased amount of time isn’t worth losing connectivity, you’re advised to try it yourself as it may surprise you. In case you were worrying, it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on your battery long-term either.
On the other hand, if you’re having trouble getting signal or mobile Internet issues, switching Airplane Mode on and off again can help you regain carrier settings — almost like restarting the whole system.
— Norton Australia (@NortonAU) August 1, 2016
It’s also handy if you’re trying to concentrate on something important. There are far too many distractions in life, so Airplane Mode stops you getting disrupted by texts, Facebook, and game notifications.
Onr worry with freemium apps concerns accidental in-app purchases. You might not make that mistake yourself, but handing your device to children to play Angry Birds, for example, can unintentionally lead to huge credit card charges. Before you give kids your device, switching to Airplane Mode will stop any additional downloads, and possibly save you cash!
Which Apps Work and Which Don’t?
Turning off all signal transmission feels like a big step, especially on your first go. You’ll worry about small things, especially if you’re using it while sleeping. Let’s put your mind at rest.
Do Alarms still work? Yes, all functions in the Clock app will still work, so you can rely on your iPhone to wake you up in the morning.
Turning my phone on airplane mode and going to sleep. Sounds perfect!
— Ag (@ag__hunna) August 2, 2016
Do Reminders work? Yes. Reminders rely on your device’s own clock, so no signals are needed. Beware reminders added from other devices (like a Mac) won’t be pushed to your device for as long as it’s in Airplane Mode.
Can I still send email? After activating Airplane Mode, your Mail app will tell you to either turn it off again or use Wi-Fi. Nonetheless, you might still be able to read messages in your Inbox, and in some cases, even be able to compose an email. It won’t actually be sent, however, unless you do manually turn on Wi-Fi or until Airplane Mode is deactivated. Instead it’ll wait in your Outbox. Remember to check it’s been sent before arguing with someone that yes, you did definitely reply to their message.
Do emergency numbers get put through? Unfortunately not. No phonecalls will be put through at all, despite you having the ability to look through your contacts. If you try to call anyone, you’ll get the notification, “You must disable Airplane Mode to make a call.”
Can I check the weather? Nope. Updates rely on an Internet connection. Look out the window.
Can I keep up to date with the FTSE? Does anyone really use the Stocks app? If you do, it’s rendered useless for the same reason as Weather. You may still be able to see data downloaded before you used Airplane Mode, if you’re really that concerned. News won’t work either, in case you’re wondering.
Can I check my Notes? Absolutely. These are all stored on your hardware, so don’t need any connections to the Internet or GPS. Naturally, you can’t AirDrop, iMessage, email, or share notes on social media unless you activate Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Creating new notes will still work, but they won’t be synced with your other devices until you disable the feature.
What about my Photos? Your camera won’t be affected, and you’ll still be able to browse your Albums. These won’t be synced with your iCloud account until you get access to Wi-Fi again either.
Can I flick through iTunes or the App Store? No. That’s why Airplane Mode is a good way to make sure you don’t make in-app purchases.
Can I watch videos or listen to music? If you’ve already downloaded media, you can watch and listen to things in that particular app. Otherwise, no, you can’t go on YouTube or stream anything not saved offline.
If only you could put your life on airplane mode, so you couldn't get disturbed for a while ?
— Filipe Orlando ? (@MrFilipeOrlando) August 4, 2016
Will Siri work? Like all voice assistants, Siri relies on the Internet for all its information, so you won’t be able to use it. You will, however, still be able to record Voice Memos.
Can I play games? It often depends on the game, but in most cases you can play games because they’ve already been downloaded. Notable exceptions include any apps that need updating before you can play, or anything that relies on GPS (like the location-aware craze, Pokémon Go).
Come Fly With Me?
See? Airplane Mode is a really great addition for iOS — and indeed other mobile operating systems! It can save you time, money, and even hassle for those times when you absolutely don’t want to be bothered by anyone.
Wondering about airplane mode with your Mac now too? Find out if and when you need to put your MacBook into airplane mode with our guide.
Image Credits: I Can See My Home From Here (Alan Levine)