40% of People Skipping Airplane Mode: What Really Happens During Your Flight?

In today’s connected world, it’s hard to imagine being unplugged, even for a moment. But when you’re soaring at 35,000 feet, the simple act of switching your phone to airplane mode becomes more than just a convenience—it’s a critical safety measure.

Despite what many might think, the importance of airplane mode extends far beyond mere protocol; it’s a vital shield protecting the intricate web of communications that keep modern aircraft safe.

The Hidden Hazards of Cell Signals In the Sky

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Image Credit: Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock.

The reason behind the FAA’s strict regulation requiring airplane mode ¹ isn’t just about avoiding annoyance; it’s about safety.

Cell phone signals, especially from non-5G devices, can interfere with an airplane’s navigation systems ².

This interference is particularly dangerous during critical phases of flight, such as landing, when precision is paramount. Shawn Pruchnicki, a professor at The Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies, emphasizes the importance of this ³, especially when considering instrument landings and the precision required for safe operation.

A Common Oversight: Many Passengers Neglect Airplane Mode

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Image Credit: Jirapong Manustrong/Shutterstock.

Despite the known risks, a surprising number of passengers, about 40% according to a 2017 survey ⁴, admit to leaving their cell service on while flying.

While there’s no concrete evidence linking cell phone interference to accidents, the theoretical risk is significant enough to warrant concern.

The issue is compounded by the varying combinations of aircraft types and cellphone models, making it nearly impossible to test every potential interference scenario comprehensively.

The Future of Connectivity: 5G & In-Flight Wi-Fi

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Image Credit: Dan74/Shutterstock.

As we progress towards widespread 5G adoption, the landscape of in-flight connectivity is evolving. 5G’s different frequencies and lower risk of interference with airplane instruments make it a safer option for in-flight use ⁵. However, older-generation cell services still pose a risk.

Onboard Wi-Fi systems, operating at different frequencies and strengths, don’t present the same level of risk, providing a safer alternative for staying connected while in the air.

The Path Ahead: Balancing Safety & Connectivity

As airlines and regulators navigate the complexities of in-flight cellular use, the advice for travelers remains clear: follow the regulations and use airplane mode, especially if your device isn’t 5G compatible.

The risk, while potentially low, is not worth the convenience of staying connected. As Eduardo Rojas-Nastrucci ⁶, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, points out, “It’s like driving on a highway; the closer you are to other cars, the higher the risk of interference.”

It will also be interesting to see how newer AI and virtual reality devices are handled during flights as the smartphone era is coming to an end.

A Matter of Personal Responsibility: The Choice to Switch Off

At the end of the day, the responsibility lies with each passenger. While the temptation to stay connected is understandable, the potential risk, however small, is a reality.

As Gila Drazen ⁷ candidly admits, forgetting to activate airplane mode might be an easy oversight, but it’s one that could carry consequences.

As we move forward into an era of enhanced in-flight connectivity, understanding and respecting the purpose behind airplane mode is key to ensuring a safe and connected journey for all.


  1. faa.gov/travelers/fly_safe/information
  2. cntraveller.com/article/the-real-reason-you-cant-use-your-phone-on-a-plane
  3. usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2022/12/01/experts-turn-on-airplane-mode/10696887002/
  4. youtube.com/watch?v=VhX3rxIIdmw
  5. usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2022/12/01/experts-turn-on-airplane-mode/10696887002/
  6. usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2022/12/01/experts-turn-on-airplane-mode/10696887002/
  7. usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2022/12/01/experts-turn-on-airplane-mode/10696887002/
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.