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Every time you’re about to take off on a plane, you hear the warning: “Your portable electronic devices must be set to airplane mode until further notice.”
You already know what to do with your smartphone: there’s a simple airplane mode toggle on both Android and iOS. But what about your MacBook?
A MacBook is an electronic device, and it’s certainly portable, so you might be puzzled about using it while in flight. Since there’s no airplane mode setting in macOS, does that mean you don’t have to do anything? And how do you put a MacBook in airplane mode manually?
It’s time to clear the confusion.
What Does Airplane Mode Do?
First, let’s clarify what airplane mode does and why it exists. On an iPhone, for instance, airplane mode setting disables the following services:
- Cellular: This stops your phone from communicating with the cell towers on the ground.
- Wi-Fi: Disconnects your device from all Wi-Fi networks and prevents it from searching for networks.
- Bluetooth: Disables any Bluetooth devices your phone is connected to (AirPods, for example). Your phone also stops searching for these devices.
- GPS: Stops your device from getting signals from the satellite.
The reason airplane mode was originally introduced is that all these services transmit and/or receive radio signals at multiple different frequencies. The signals can potentially interfere with the radio system of aircraft as well as the towers on the ground.
So far, there’s been no evidence that radio signals emitted by electronic devices pose a more serious threat than a pesky noise on the aircraft radio. In theory, though, even that noise could distract the pilot or prevent them from getting critical information.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System has record of a few incidents where passengers’ devices allegedly caused radio static interference and even compass system malfunctions. That’s reason enough for the industry to stick to the rule.
Do You Need to Put Your MacBook in Airplane Mode?
So it’s no problem for you to put your iPhone into airplane mode. But with your MacBook, it gets trickier.
Because airplane mode for smartphones disables Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS—which, aside from GPS, are also available on a MacBook—you’d assume they pose a risk, too. However, the main culprit of any possible interference is the GSM/3G radio. Its signal is way more powerful than those emitted by the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios and received by the GPS.
And MacBooks simply don’t have that.
The airplane mode setting on iOS and Android disables all radios present in your device because it’s easier and safer than picking and choosing. But the truth is the radio signals emitted by your laptop are too weak to cause any kind of trouble.
Regulations on Airplane Mode and Laptops
In 2013 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration allowed in-flight use of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—on the condition that the carrier provides Wi-Fi. In a 2013 guidance update, the E.U.’s Aviation Safety Agency named smartphones, tablets, and ereaders as electronic devices, with no mention of laptops whatsoever.
So from a legal standpoint, there seems to be no need to put your MacBook in airplane mode. However, switching off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can help you save battery power, which is vital when you need your laptop to last for the whole flight.
MacBooks don’t have an actual GPS chip like your phone does. Instead, location services uses nearby Wi-Fi networks to figure out your location. This affects battery charge only when an app is actively using it. If you have an app constantly trying to pin down your location—like a weather tool that runs in the menu bar—you can either shut down the app or disable location services.
Airplane Mode on Mac: Disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
Switching off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on a MacBook is easy. We’ll walk you through it in case you aren’t sure:
- Click on the Bluetooth icon in the top menu bar and choose Turn Bluetooth Off to disable it.
- Next, click the Wi-Fi icon next to it and choose Turn Wi-Fi Off.
- If you don’t see one or both of these icons, you’ve probably hidden them. In this case, you’ll need to go to Apple logo > System Preferences. Select Bluetooth or Network to turn them off from than panel.
That’s it. And while you’re at it, you can also quit any apps you have running up in the menu bar. Normally they don’t use many system resources, but when you want to conserve as much energy as possible, you should shut down whatever you’re not using.
To quit an app that’s running in the menu bar, find the settings icon and click it. Settings usually include a Quit option.
Disable Location Services
Next, here’s how you can disable location services:
- Go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy.
- Open the Privacy tab and select Location Services on the left.
- Here you’ll see a checked Enable Location Services box and the list of apps using your location. Both the checkbox and the list appear disabled until you authenticate.
- To make changes, click on the lock in the bottom-left corner. Enter your user password and hit Enter or click the Unlock button.
- Uncheck the Enable Location Services checkbox.
- Click on the lock icon to save your changes.
If you don’t want to completely turn off location services for some reason, you can deny all apps access to it. This way, your MacBook’s location functionality won’t receive any signals. This is how you do it:
- Just like before, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy > Location Services.
- Click on the lock icon in the bottom left-hand corner.
- Enter your password and click Unlock. The list of apps using location services should be active now.
- Scroll down the list and uncheck all checkboxes.
- Click on the lock again to save and password-protect your changes.
We’ve covered more about macOS location security if you’re curious.
By following the steps above, you’ll essentially set your MacBook to airplane mode. Just keep in mind that regardless of your settings, you won’t be able to use the laptop during taxi, takeoff, and landing. The cabin crew will ask you to stash it away until you’re at a safe altitude.
MacBook Airplane Mode: Unnecessary but Handy
To answer the original question: no, you don’t really have to put your MacBook in airplane mode. But you might as well, because it saves battery power. Plus, it eliminates any chance (however slim) that your MacBook will mess with the complex machinery that keeps your plane in the air.
So in the end, it’s your call. You can simply keep everything on, or disable the services you won’t use anyway. After all, in-flight Wi-Fi is not always worth the money, and the free Wi-Fi hardly ever works.