Your devices on an airplane

UPDATE: In 2013 the FAA began to allow portable devices without keyboards to be used during takeoff and landing, so this article is very much out of date and is no longer accurate.

With devices that go on standby, airplane mode, and with airlines now offering WiFi or cellular, things are getting a little murky because the terminology is changing and people often don’t know exactly what they need to do to comply with the laws and airline rules. So let me try to break it down for you.

Cellular – despite what you might believe, it’s not the FAA that bans the use of cell phones on a flight. There isn’t a huge concern that your phone is going to cause instrument failure. It’s the FCC that bans it because when you are in the air and your phone can be seen by hundreds of cell towers at once it stresses the system out. Normally on the ground your phone is only in range of a three or four so it’s something they can handle. On some international flights when you are outside of US airspace you can use your phone because the airplane has a cellular receiver onboard, which keeps your phone from going into high-power mode looking for towers on the ground.

WiFi – Many airplanes now have WiFi hotspots for in-flight use now, so WiFi is fine on these flights, obviously. Each airline can make their own determination.

Airplane mode – this term is now outdated, but still used. Airplane mode is intended to make your device comply with rules that you are not allowed to use any radio transmitters or receivers on flights. It simply turns off all radios: cellular, WiFi, bluetooth. However, now with airlines allowing WiFi and cellular on some flights “airplane mode” is a bit of a misnomer. What it is useful for is for turning off all of your radios, then you can turn each one you need on one by one.

Sleep mode – When the flight attendant asks you to turn off your electronic devices, they do not mean to put it into sleep mode. They mean that you need to shut down your Mac, iPhone, Kindle, etc. Turning off the screen is only turning off the screen. On your iOS devices you will need to hold down the power button on the top edge until it tells you to “slide to power off”. Slide. Your Kindle can be shut down by holding the power button/switch. The screen will go completely blank.

During takeoff – airlines know that consumer devices are unlikely to be of concern during takeoff, but one reason cited for continuing to make sure everything is “stowed” is that takeoff and landing often hits major turbulence. A projectile laptop will probably do much more head injury than a flying copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in paperback. There is currently talk of certifying specific models of devices to be used during takeoff and landing so that people can use their iPads and Kindles instead of being forced to read Skymall.

What specifically to do:

  1. Before takeoff: turn off all the radios on all your devices and then shut them down. This means enabling airplane mode on your iOS devices and Kindle (or turning wireless off on older Kindles) and turning off WiFi and bluetooth on your laptop. This will keep the radios from turning back on right away once you turn the devices back on. Then shut your devices down. On iOS hold the power button on the top edge for a few seconds. On Kindle hold the power button/switch until the screen goes blank. On Mac go to the Apple menu and select Shut Down.
  2. During the flight: You can turn on your devices and you can turn on WiFi if you’re intending to use their in-flight WiFi.
  3. Before landing: Shut your devices back down as in step 1.