Switching your phone onto airplane mode is as standard as buckling your seatbelt when on-board an airplane. And, as the name suggests, the setting was designed specifically for smart and portable devices when travelling by air with the intention of restricting its ability to transmit wireless signals. This is important as these have the potential to interfere with the aircraft’s communications systems. Long-gone are the days when phones needed to be switched off in their entirety, activating airplane mode is sufficient. But, what really happens if you forget to do this, or don’t want to?

Well, of course by activating airplane mode, you won’t be connected to any networks that facilitate cell signal and allow you to send and receive messages. That being said, your phone can still be used in airplane mode and can even be connected to any available in-flight Wi-Fi services when available. So what is it that toggling between the different modes actually achieves? The answer is not as simple as we may think due to the lack of conclusive research and evidence on the subject. However, the good news is that the consequences of leaving your cell phone are not as catastrophic as Final Destination-esque movies may have us believe.  In 2017 a study was conducted and concluded that 17% of passengers never put their phone onto airplane mode.

“If you do not turn off your cell phone, it has the potential to interfere with navigation instruments” says Dan Bubb, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a former airline pilot. “Potential” is the operative word here — if there’s any potential for danger, whatever the cause, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are going to avoid it.” The rules and regulations can be confusing though as the US and Europe has different takes when it comes to 5G. One of the biggest issues during using a phone during take-off and landing which are both crucial parts of the flight – by allowing passengers to use their phones during these stages, there is a risk of cellular tower “overloading.” In the US, the frequency of their 5G network has the potential to interfere with the radio altimeter, which is essential for navigating a plane landing. According to Bubb, “Because pilots sit so high in the cockpit, it is difficult for them to see the runway when they land, which is why they rely upon the radio altimeter for guidance. So, when flight attendants ask passengers to put their phones on ‘airplane mode,’ or turn them off, there is a good reason why passengers should comply with that request.”

That being said, the same is not applicable in Europe as their 5G network operates at a different frequency to that of the US, meaning that it doesn’t impose the same level of risk. This also means that passengers can continue to use their phones. Locally, we adhere to the US methodology, but even if we didn’t – a flight is a good opportunity to disconnect from your devices and the world, even if it is just for a short while.