Does Airplane Mode Really Work?

Sep 8, 2022 | Cyber Security

« Insights | Does Airplane Mode Really Work?
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Airplane mode has many more uses than just during a flight, but when enabled, just how secure are you and have you really fully disconnected?

Airplane mode is one of those features that has more uses than just during a commercial flight.  There are many questions about airplane mode regarding what’s really going on once you enable it and how off-grid you really are.

For example, in enabling this feature does it mean you are completely offline?  Is it something that should only be used when flying?  What other uses are there for this feature?  You might be surprised to find out that Airplane mode is not as offline as you might have first thought.

What is Airplane Mode?

what is airplane mode.

Mobile devices, smartphones, and other mobile gadgets should all now include an airplane mode function built into them.

This feature exists to disable the:

  • Bluetooth
  • All Wi-Fi and wireless connections
  • Cellular signal
  • Radio waves
  • Internet connection
  • and data connections on your device.

This also stops it from interfering with the numerous sensors and equipment such as those used on commercial aircraft.

Your smartphone or mobile device, for example, is emitting low-level radiation through radio frequency radiation known as electromagnetic radiation when in use and the airplane mode feature is designed to stop this.

Whilst you can’t see this interference, if you have ever placed a device close to a speaker and heard a buzz or noise then that’s the interference being emitted from the device.  It can also happen as a device seeks our nearby Wi-Fi networks.

Many believe that it’s just smartphones that need disabling during flights but of course, your laptops, tablets and even eReaders such as Kindles all give out potential Wi-Fi signals which are often forgotten.

The most common use of Airplane mode (hence really where the name originates), is when people are boarding an aircraft and are told to switch any device into this mode during take-off and landings.

Airplane Mode will keep apps functioning even if other features are shown to be limited. Your device can take photos, play audio and videos such as from a streaming service and listen to music in airplane mode (if it’s been downloaded on the device in advance).  It does not delete anything stored on the device, nor does it make you completely invisible and off-grid (as explained below) and you can still read unread emails for example even if you’re offline.

Why is Airplane Mode Required on Flights?

why is airplane mode needed on flights.

When flying on commercial airlines, you will be familiar with being asked to put your phone on airplane mode.

Airplane mode removes the changes of any potential radio interference from “smart” devices. For example, you might have a tablet such as an iPad. If you have a cellular connection for it, this too needs putting into Airplane mode even if you don’t use it to make calls.

The reason is that just like the speaker’s example above if a pilot was making a landing or take-off, any interference with aircraft communications could have catastrophic results for the safety of the flight.

Why? Because some of the communication and aircraft navigational systems use the same radio frequencies as the radios on your devices for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, video and voice calls, 3G, 4G and 5G as they all use different parts of the radio frequency spectrum.

If crosstalk or what’s known as adjacent-channel interference (ACI) occurs it means that a radio receiver can pick up a transmission from a transmitter on a nearby frequency. This means the direct communication line with the ground, such as air traffic control (ATC) or ground control can be potentially compromised by a phone call or connection happening within the plane from a passenger. The potential consequences of this interference don’t bear thinking about.

Many believe that the arrival of 5G is changing all this, however, airplane mode is now more important than ever when in flight. Despite planes flying up 40,000 feet, signals generated from the ground antenna and 5G devices may cause greater interference at the most significant moments in flight – take-off and landing. That’s because the radio signals are close to those being used by the aeroplanes radio altimeters which are bouncing radio signals off the ground and back up to the aircraft’s antenna.

To just momentarily put this into the worst-case scenarios for example, during descent and approach, an interfering signal could make it difficult for the pilots to work out how far the plane is from the ground.

However, please don’t despair or stress too much. If you forget to turn it on, the chances of you causing a disaster are slim but it’s not worth taking the risk or chance of any interference. Pilots use radio altimeters to know the exact height of the aircraft and they rely on this information during approach and when visibility is low such as during heavy fog or bad weather. Of course, these planes can also perform automatic landing using flight instruments.

Of course, that’s in large commercial jets. Smaller aircraft may not be equipped with Instrumental Flight Recognition tools (IFR) and rely on VFR (Visual Flight Reference), so if you’re flying in small aircraft across to islands or across countries, such as in a BN2-Islander or Havilland Twin Otter or aircraft such as Cessnas, make sure you’re offline.

How Do You Enable Airplane Mode?

how to enable airplane mode.

Airplane Mode is now available across multiple devices such as your smartphone, tablet and laptop. If you’re not sure how to do it, here’s how across all your devices:

Windows Laptop

If you’re using a laptop computer, follow these steps to toggle Airplane Mode.

  • In the Windows notification area, at the bottom-right of the desktop, right-click the Wi-Fi icon. If your laptop is in Airplane mode, right-click the airplane icon instead.
  • In the pop-up menu, click the Open Network & Internet settings option.
  • In the Settings window, click the Airplane mode option in the left navigation pane.
  • In the Airplane mode section, click the toggle switch to turn Airplane mode on or off.

Apple Laptop

Apple laptops do not have an Airplane Mode option. If you are using a laptop with macOS, you need to disable Wi-Fi on the laptop instead.

Android Phone, Smartphone or Tablet

If you’re using an Android smartphone or tablet, follow these steps to toggle Airplane Mode.

From the device’s home screen, swipe down from the top of the screen using two fingers.
On the Quick Settings screen, tap the Airplane Mode option to toggle it on or off.

Alternatively:

  • Access the Settings utility.
  • On the Settings screen, tap the Network & Internet option.
  • On the Network & Internet screen, tap the toggle switch to the right of the Airplane Mode option to turn it on or off. The icon turns blue (or your theme’s colour) when enabled, and returns to the default grey when disabled.

iPhone or iPad

If you’re using an iPhone or an iPad (an iOS device), follow these steps to toggle Airplane Mode.

  • From the device’s home screen, swipe up from the bottom of the screen or swipe down from the top-right (iPhone X or higher).
  • Tap the rounded airplane icon to turn Airplane Mode on or off. The icon turns orange when enabled, and returns to its default hue when disabled.

Alternatively:

  • Access the Settings utility.
  • On the Settings screen, tap the toggle switch to the right of the Airplane Mode option to turn it on or off.

Kindle or Other e-Reader

If you’re using a Kindle or another e-reader device, follow these steps to toggle Airplane Mode.

  • Access the e-reader’s home screen.
  • Look for a Settings option or an icon that looks like a gear and tap that option or icon.
  • Find and tap the Airplane Mode option or an airplane icon. When enabled or on, the Airplane Mode option does not have a slash through it. When disabled or off, the Airplane Mode option has a slash through it.

How Do You Know if Airplane Mode is Enabled?

Your WiFi will be turned off, and your cell phone will no longer transmit a wireless network connection. You should also see an “X” through your mobile device’s symbol too for any network connection.

You Can Still Use Bluetooth and Wifi when Airplane Mode is Enabled

It is also possible to have your smartphone or tablet in airplane mode (so not able to receive calls), but still use your device for a Wi-Fi connection or Bluetooth connection – this includes during flights too.

As of 2013, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has relaxed its rules regarding the use of portable electronic equipment on aeroplanes.

LEARN MORE
How to Stay Safe When Using Public Wi-Fi

This enables passengers to use Bluetooth to connect to headphones, and wireless headsets and allows for Wi-Fi to access the airline Wi-Fi onboard the aircraft (if available). Of course, you will still be advised to disable and be in full airplane mode during take-off and landing, not least so that you can hear any instructions being made.  You should also treat any airline Wi-Fi network as a public Wi-Fi service and take precautions accordingly as you surf and use the information services.

In the UK, and the US, the advice however can vary per airline so always check before you set off on any flights what their rules are regarding the use of electronics on flights.

6 Uses of Airplane Mode

6 uses of airplane mode.

Despite primarily being designed for use during flights there are actually a lot of uses for airplane mode.

Here are just a few which you may or may not have heard of:

  • Saving battery life. It’s true, that by switching off signals being admitted from a device you are using less power so can conserve energy. Pop the device into any additional battery-saving mode (your battery meter should change colour), turn down the screen brightness (disabling auto-brightness mode) and you’d be amazed at how much battery life you can save. Sending and receiving Wi-Fi signals is one of the biggest drains on the battery of any device and you will see an enormous difference in battery usage, especially in low-power mode.
  • Resetting a connection. If you are struggling with a phone signal in a particular area or not able to get a solid data connection for 4G/5G, then a quick tip is to enable/disable airplane mode it can perform a quick reset of connections without you needing to turn your device on or off.
  • Disconnecting. If you really need to focus and get some work done, then turning airplane mode on you will disconnect and not be able to receive any calls, nor get distracted by notifications or prompts. If this is the kind of focus you are looking to achieve then also make sure your main device notifications are disconnected too such as if you’re working behind a desktop or laptop. This is also helpful as your get ready for bed so that you don’t read a work email late at night which increases your stress levels before the next day.
  • Improving your sleep. If you need to be up early in the morning and need a solid night’s sleep, then no one likes to be disturbed by an errant phone call. Simply popping your phone into airplane mode can prevent such events from happening until morning. It also reduces any radiation and cell phone signals from interfering with your body as you sleep. Many charge their phones overnight and have them stored on their bedside tables. See if you sleep any better with your devices switched off. It’s a helpful trick if you’re trying to avoid distractions first thing too. Find out how to sleep better here.
  • Preventing roaming charges. If you’re travelling with your phone, then enabling airplane mode will prevent you from being charged the moment you land at your destination. On some plans, you will be immediately charged on connection so it’s best to keep your phone off to avoid attracting high fees.  You can of course enable Wi-Fi and use Wi-Fi calling which can save you a lot of money when communicating abroad.
  • Prevent distractions.  The biggest use of this mode is to stop yourself from touching your phone whilst driving.  Whilst most now integrate into services such as Apple Car Play, phones still provide a distraction for many.  Pop it offline, or into a Faraday bag (see below) and all distractions are removed.  The downside?  You’ll have to make do with good old-fashioned FM or DAB radio.

Is Airplane WiFi Safe?

Hackers often target airplane Wi-Fi networks because they’re relatively easy to break into and people usually don’t take the necessary precautions when using them. To protect yourself from becoming a victim of these hackers, turn off the airplane Wi-Fi network before boarding the plane.  If you’re using an iPhone or iPad, there is no way to turn off Wi-Fi on these devices in full, hence the recommendation to use a Faraday bag below when you’re on the move.

You shouldn’t be casual about connecting to a public wifi system just because you are on a plane. The connection transmission outside of the plane has the same security measures as the data signal you get on your smartphone on the ground. The wifi signal within the plane is as secure as the service that you get from any wifi router connection. You are at risk whenever you connect to a wifi service in a public place.

To protect your internet connection when using public wifi hotspots, as with any public WiFi hotspot, you should always connect through a VPN. A VPN encrypts your traffic so that hackers cannot intercept it.

So is it safe?  No, not without adding additional security tools, so make sure if you have to connect to the Internet, you keep your Internet activity as small as possible and do not perform any tasks which may put you at risk.

Is My Phone Really Off When in Airplane Mode?

is my phone really off in airplane mode.

If you have put your phone in Airplane mode it doesn’t mean you are completely off-grid and have disappeared.

It is likely that your smartphone may not feature a removable battery function (without voiding your warranty), and your Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and internal radios are operated by a software switch, not a physical off switch i.e. they’re switched off using the operating system and airplane mode toggle not a physical switch like the mute option on iPhones.

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This means that you can’t guarantee that your phone isn’t sending and receiving signals when in Airplane mode.

Your device will still have its battery power available, GPS-receiving functions, wireless transmission functions and could be manipulated to send out a weak cellular service.   This means it still has great potential to access wireless networks, be used for tracking, and communicate with cell phone towers in the local vicinity.

If your operating system is not up to date with the latest security installed, then the risks of the device being manipulated only increase.  In 2011 there were even reports about how a hacker made lithium-ion batteries explode after exploiting an Apple weakness – which is now a long time fixed so don’t worry!

Use a Faraday Bag to Drop Off Grid

Your best defence against any of this is to put your device into offline mode and look at getting what’s known as a Faraday bag.

A Faraday bag is like a Faraday cage, as it is an enclosure that does not allow induced signals to be received or transmitted.

Simply pop your device into one, and you drop off the grid.  Even the GPS will stop working.

These bags are proving ever more popular as they’re easy to use and they can really help you disconnect.  They are also incredibly helpful when it comes to preventing your car keys from being cloned and your car from being stolen.

Some of the best Faraday bags you can get are from:

Benefits of Using a Faraday Bag in Business

Not only do they remove all radiation to help you sleep, but they are also great at protecting your data too and preventing someone from trying to remotely access your devices when in transit.  Of course, they also work very well when flying.  If you’ve never heard of these before, then some of the benefits include:

  • Being able to completely disconnect and increase your focus.
  • Enable you to sleep better and remove all radiation and signals from your devices to improve your health.
  • Prevent cyber attacks on your devices – especially if you hold commercial and sensitive data on your devices.
  • Adding an additional level of security if you forgot to update a device or enable security functions.
  • Keep your data secure when in transit and remove potential compromises or potential data breaches when stored away or not in use.
  • Prevent hacking of your devices.

Summary

airplane mode offline.

Hopefully, this article is helpful and it has gone some way in highlighting ways that the Airplane mode feature on any device is more helpful than just being used during flight.

It can:

  • Increase shorter battery life and increase your overall battery level.
  • Improve your focus and help you sleep better.
  • Help you reset network connections.
  • Keep you connected yet disable calls.
  • Assist with security.
  • Disable App notifications.
  • Prevent you from getting high roaming charges when abroad.

Just be mindful that it doesn’t mean you are completely secure as the battery and GPS are still likely to be in the device during use.

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