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What happens when you leave your phone switched on during a flight?

Credits: iStock

When you take a flight, you are automatically asked to switch off your smartphone, your tablet and other electronic devices, from take-off to landing. So why do airlines still insist upon this, even though there doesn’t seem to be any significant risk?

Although no plane has ever been known to have crashed to Earth because of smartphones, the question is still under debate, and we still don’t know what the real risks are. In the case of a phone that is switched on and active, the signal gets stronger when the plane is over 3,000 meters in altitude. In fact, the same signal passes through numerous antennae linked to the Earth, and could potentially cause interference with the plane’s systems.

“The issue is interfering with the airplane and causing more work for the pilots during critical phases of flight. So when they take off and when they land, those are phases of flight which require a high level of concentration by the pilots”, explained Kenny Kirchnoff, an ex-engineer with Boeing, to CNN in 2013.

In 2014, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) authorised the use of all types of electronic devices as long as they were set to flight mode. However, many airlines still prefer that these devices are completely switched off, as a precautionary measure. Even in flight mode, passengers’ devices could theoretically generate magnetic currents which could cause disruptions to communication between the pilot and the base.

However, the EASA also gave airlines the right to allow passengers to use their devices as they wished, if the company could prove that their plane systems would not be disrupted by the signals. This is the case in companies such as Fly Emirates or British Airways, who give their passengers the option of making telephone calls on the flight using on-board stations, which are managed by specialised telephone operators such as On Air and AeroMobile. However, is is not the same in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still bans communications from passengers, still citing the possibility of interference.

There is also another factor at play: the fact the the ban on smartphone communication from planes is a good thing for the majority of passengers. In fact, it can be disruptive for other passengers when people make phone calls during a flight – particularly long flights – in which passengers generally like to enjoy peace and quiet.

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