Airplane Mode: What Your Phone Can and Cannot Do

Airplane mode is supposed to turn your phone into a high tech version of a paperweight. It turns off your device's cellular connection, GPS, Bluetooth, and WIFI, so you are left with one unusable phone. But that simply is not true nowadays.

What can your phone do while in airplane mode? With a bit of creativity, you can get almost full use out of your phone, from replying to emails to doing some work and to getting entertained on a long boring flight. But you definitely cannot make voice calls, connect to the Internet using your carrier's data plan, or send SMS messages.

For everything else – and this may sound cliché – there is an app for that. How can you continue using for tablet or smartphone while it is in airplane mode?

Airplane Mode Guide

But First, What Is Airplane Mode?

Airplane mode is a setting on mobile devices that will shut down certain components of your smartphone and tablet that transmit radio signals. In short, airplane mode will block the connection to your network. You will not be able to use your phone's data to connect to the Internet, use FaceTime, send text messages, or make a phone call.

Airplane mode setting on an Oppo A5 2020

It Will Turn WIFI and Bluetooth off Too

However, Bluetooth connections are allowed, so if you have a Bluetooth headset and music on your phone, you can listen to it, no problem. You will need to switch the Bluetooth back on after you put your phone on airplane mode.

Adu being said because airplane mode turns off bluetooth while listening to music

It used to be that WIFI connections were not allowed while you are on board, which is why airplane plane mode also turns it off. However, in 2013, the Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration revised its guidelines and allowed WIFI connections while you fly. The move was to allow for the expanded use of your personal electronic devices during flights.

If your airline has WIFI service, you can turn the WIFI on your phone back on and surf the Internet, continue reading your latest e-book, or watch videos. However, you should hold on to your mobile device or put it in your back pocket when the plane takes off or lands.

Why Do You Need to Put Your Mobile Devices on Airplane Mode, Anyway?

Using smartphones and tablets is a part of our daily lives, so much that we can probably leave our wallets at home, but not our mobile devices. We use our smartphones for just about everything, from connecting with friends, work colleagues, and family via text messages or voice calls. It is also an excellent way to catch up on work.

However, aviation safety officials have sounded the alarm on the dangers of using these mobile devices while on board an aircraft. The FAA reports that these devices have the potential to cause interference with the plane's radios and electronic systems. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission bans the use of wireless devices operating on the 800-megahertz (800 MHz) frequency because these can interfere with the wireless networks on the ground.

In the past, passengers were advised to turn their cellphones off during the entire duration of the flight. This solution made sense back when cellular phones only allowed you to make calls or send SMS messages. Because you are not allowed to do both, you might as well just turn the phone off.

But cellular phones have become more advanced with added features beyond just voice calls and text messages. It now has various features and functionalities that you can use even without a cellular connection, such as allowing you to listen to music, play a game, or read an e-book.

Can You Connect to the Internet While on Airplane Mode?

As the airplane mode turns off the mobile device's radio frequency antenna, you will not be able to connect to your cellular network. So you will not be able to use your data to connect to the Internet.

The good news is that there are airlines that offer WIFI Internet connectivity. A 2018 survey found that 82 airlines now offer an in-flight Internet connection. But not every service is equal. There are airlines such as Delta, American, and Emirates that offer speedy and reliable WIFI connections, while others such as Iberia, Air Canada, and Aeroflot left passengers wanting.

Passengers should also note that for some airlines, there are planes where WIFI connectivity is not offered. Only Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, and JetBlue have Internet on all their aircraft. For longer flights, you have some options:

  • Air Europa
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Delta
  • Emirates
  • Etihad
  • Scoot
  • Singapore Airlines
  • United
  • Virgin Atlantic

While some airlines such as JetBlue and Norwegian offer free Internet access, some will charge you an arm and a leg for it. You can pay to connect to the Internet, with packages such as:

  • United: 17 USD for unlimited access during your flight
  • Delta Air Lines: 14 USD for a Gogo all-day pass
  • Cathay Pacific: 9.95 USD for one-hour continuous use, 12.95 USD for flight times of 6 hours or less, or 19.95 USD for flight times above 6 hours
  • Singapore Airlines: 3.99 USD for 30 MB (2 hours), 9.99 USD for 100 MB, and 15.99 USD for 200 MB

You can check this page for a full list of airlines that offer onboard WIFI, how much you need to pay to access them, and which aircraft offers WIFI services on planes.

The Problem with Onboard WIFI Connections

As you can see, not all aircraft offer onboard WIFI, so you will need to clarify Internet availability with your airline to be sure that you can browse and stream while flying. Plus, you do have to pay expensive rates to get Internet access on board.

There are also concerns that the bandwidth might be a bit limited. Most of the time too, connections are very unstable. How bad is it?

A little less than 6 out of 10, or 57% of aircraft that do offer onboard WIFI have enough speed for web browsing and light-duty streaming. Only 16 percent have speeds comparable to your home Internet and can handle video streaming.

There are Ways to Make It More Bearable and Wallet-Friendly

Being on a long haul flight can zap your energy, and boredom can sink in fast. If you dread being disconnected and off the grid even for just a few hours, you should know that there are ways to make in-flight WIFI more affordable.

First, you can buy all-day passes for Gogo anytime and just use them on your next flight. Or if that is not an option, you can buy an Internet pass with your plane ticket. Those who travel a lot might want to consider getting a monthly subscription to these onboard WIFI services to save even more.

Some mobile carriers and credit card companies also reward you with free WIFI passes. For instance, U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Credit Card, you can get 12 Gogo passes every year. Other credit cards have similar offers.

Adu holding his wallet

Most of the time, however, the cost of logging into the Internet in midair is not the only problem that you would have. In-flight Internet is notorious for its slow connection speeds. Not only that, but you also suffer from dropped connections a lot.

To get the most out of a slow Internet connection, you can turn off all the data-hogging apps that are running in the background. You should not be making updates when the connection is slow and unreliable.

To deal with a connection that is dropped frequently, you can choose to work in offline mode. For instance, several Google services allow you to keep working when you get disconnected from the Internet.

Airplane Mode: Can You Make a Call?

Because the first thing that airplane mode turns off is the radio-frequency transmitter of your device, you will not be able to make or receive phone calls on your phone. You can, however, use a Voice over IP (VoIP) call if your carrier has a WIFI connection. If you choose a VoIP service such as Skype, you can even call landlines and other phone numbers that are not added as contacts.

Adu wondering whether you can call while on airplane mode

However, some airlines still prohibit making voice calls even when you are connected to their WIFI for a variety of reasons. In 2012, Viber founder Talmon Marco was arrested upon getting off a Delta Airlines flight for using Viber while on board. He was using the plane's WIFI connection to make the call.

Delta gave out different explanations for calling the cops on Marco. One employee cited FAA restrictions, while another said it was against the Gogo terms of service. Gogo is the in-flight WIFI service of Delta. Another reason they gave out was that most of their passengers wanted a more quiet time onboard, and voice calls can be irritating.

This incident happened before the FAA and FCC relaxed rules on the use of personal electronic devices on a flying plane. You might have the FCC and the FAA on your side, but it might be a better idea to ask a flight attendant if it is okay to make voice calls while on the plane.

Can You Send a Text Message While on Airplane Mode?

When airplane mode is activated, you cannot send SMS messages from your phone. However, if the plane you are in has WIFI, you can still use other messaging apps such as iMessage or WhatsApp.

Trying to send an SMS on airplane mode

Can I Send an Email While My Phone Is on Airplane Mode?

If you are looking to have some time answering emails while on a plane, then you know that you can compose a new email, or reply to one, even on airplane mode. However, without a WIFI connection on board, you will have to wait until you get off the plane before these emails get sent.

Even without an Internet connection on board, it is still good that you can write the email and have it queued in your outbox. That way, when it comes to last-minute work-related matters, or just making sure that you sent your best friend a warm birthday greeting before you forget about it, you can do it during your flight.

Offline mode on Outlook (desktop)

Can You Use Your AirPods While on Airplane Mode?

Airplane mode shuts down any radio antennas on your device, and this includes your WIFI and Bluetooth connection. However, like WIFI, you can turn the Bluetooth back on manually. As such, you can use your AirPods and any other Bluetooth headphones, as well as other accessories such as wireless keyboards that use Bluetooth.

Adu holding his earbuds

This is because Bluetooth uses short-range radio signals that will not interfere with ground communications and the plane's systems. Your wireless keyboards, headphones, and AirPods also have a short-range antenna, so it is safe to bring on board.

Can I Watch TV Shows or Movies on Airplane Mode?

Yes, you can. However, because of the spotty Internet connection onboard planes, your best bet for some in-flight uninterrupted and buffering-free personal entertainment is to download the videos or movies onto your phone first. Moreover, some inflight WIFI systems use a data cap system, and streaming uses a lot of data.

TV Shows and Movies

Netflix, for one, allows you to download some of their content onto your phone. Supported devices include:

  • An iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch that runs on iOS 9.0 or later
  • An Android phone or tablet that has version 4.4.2. or later
  • An Amazon Fire tablet with Fire OS 4.0 as its operating system
  • A computer or tablet that runs on Windows 10 Version 1607 (Anniversary Update) or later

Using the Netflix app, you can start downloading any show with the Downloads icon. You can then access the content later on when you go to the My Downloads section of the app. Having these downloaded shows will be a good way to keep your kids pre-occupied with their favorite cartoons, or for you to use that in-the-air downtime to catch up on The Politician.

Take note, however, that not all Netflix titles are available for download.

Music

If you want to listen to a podcast or your favorite jams, then you should be glad that iTunes does not require an Internet connection to work. So, if you have your grooves stored on your iPhone or iPad, you are pretty much set to go.

However, if you have been streaming your music on an Android device, then you might need to download them onto your phone before your flight. For Spotify Premium users, the streaming service allows you to download the podcasts and music that you want to listen to. Just go to the playlists and toggle the Download switch on. On the plane, you can set the app to offline mode and start listening.

Adu listening to music

Along this line, it is a given that you would still be able to view the photos and videos that you have taken with your phone because these are all stored on your internal memory.

Is Your Phone's GPS Affected When Airplane Mode Is On?

For some devices, airplane mode does not turn off your GPS antenna, which is a receive-only antenna. Because it does not transmit signals, airplane modes sometimes do not bother with them.

However, some iOS devices do turn off the GPS antenna but leave Bluetooth on. This might be because some people use airplane mode as a way to save their batteries. Turning off the GPS will drastically reduce the phone's demands on the battery.

But go ahead and turn your GPS on if you want to get real-time tracking on your flight. You should also consider getting offline maps such as Flyover Country and get a window seat to real-time updates of your location, along with interesting tidbits such as dinosaur fossils found in the area and other interesting facts.

Can You Read e-Books and Articles on Airplane Mode?

If you have saved the e-book or PDF file on your device, then you can certainly read your books on the plane. However, do remember that iOS devices allow you to store your e-books on iCloud, so be sure to download them first before you get on the plane.

Articles, on the other hand, can be tricky. You can open a browser and load the articles that you want to read while flying. Sometimes, however, your browser will reset, and you would need to reload those articles again, which means you would need an Internet connection.

Adu trying to read an ebook on his phone

You can print these articles as PDF and read them the same way that you read e-books. But an easier way is to download an app like Pocket. This application allows you to download articles, blog posts, and news so that you can read it later even when you are not connected to the Internet. A big bonus for Pocket users is that it can also download videos that you can watch offline.

Other apps that allow you to read articles offline include:

  • Flipboard, if you want your articles to have beautiful layouts
  • Instapaper, if you to experience reading articles like you were reading a newspaper
  • Safari Reading List, if you have and iOS device
  • Evernote has a variety of features, including an extension that allows you to save an entire article or a stripped-down version of it.

Can You Play Games While in Airplane Mode?

For those who are looking for ways to be entertained on a long flight, or just struggling with a limited data plan, there are offline games that you can download that allows you to play games on planes.

What are some games that you should try?

  • Mini Metro – A mobile game that allows you to design and run your own subway system. It allows you to design a metro that can handle a growing population.
  • Monument Valley – This game combines breathtaking graphics and challenging puzzles.
  • Plague Inc – If you love biology and science, this game might give you some idea of how viruses and diseases spread throughout the world. The premise of the game is simple, you have a pathogen, and you unleash it to try and kill everyone around the world. The difficulty curve is enough to make those hours of sitting in a boring plane quickly disappear.
  • The Room: Old Sins – Scary, moody, and challenging, this mobile game allows you to explore rooms and find clues, as well as play secret puzzles. All that done with a high level of detail.
  • Eternium – A role-playing game that lets you pretend to be a mage, bounty hunter, or warrior. You can open gold chests, fight enemies, and level up. This game has excellent graphics, and it is easy to learn.
  • Really Bad Chess– What if you play chess, but the pieces on the board are randomly picked? You may end up with four queens and no pawns. Or you might end up with seven pawns and a couple of knights.
  • Bloons TD6 – This tower defense game makes use of sharp visuals, including helicopters, mutant monkeys, and bombs to pop your balloons. You get dozens of maps, multiplayer, special events, and a variety of play modes that can guarantee loads of fun for hours.

Other Uses for Airplane Mode

The airplane mode is there to make sure that your smartphone or tablet is not causing problems while you are traveling by air. But, you do not have to wait for a plane ride to use the airplane mode on your devices.

For one, you can turn this on if you want to save on your battery. If you do not have the time to stop and plug in your charger, then you can rely on airplane mode to help you make do with the charge that you have left.

How does the airplane mode save your battery juice?

  • Your phone is not continually connecting to a cell tower.
  • The device is not connected to your Bluetooth-enabled devices.
  • Your smartphone is not continuously looking for a WIFI network to connect to.
  • Your phone is not constantly pinging a satellite for GPS information.

The Daily Dot reports that airplane mode saves around eight percent of your battery life. Meanwhile, Wirecutter tested several smartphone models and found that when the airplane mode turns off all the transmitters on your device, you can save as much as 54 percent.

You can also take advantage of airplane mode after you have landed. For instance, if your itinerary brings you to a place with bad reception, you can turn on the airplane mode to stop the phone from trying so hard to connect to a cell tower.

It can also ensure that you do not accidentally incur roaming charges when you arrive in a foreign city. Or stop your phone from ringing when you are watching a movie in the theater. Plus, putting your phone in airplane mode might help in resolving network problems. Lastly, you can use airplane mode for those times when your kids borrow your phone, and you do not want them charging for in-app purchases or surfing the Internet in general.

How Do You Activate the Airplane Mode?

Airplane mode helps you to be safe while flying. It prevents your phone from interfering with radio signals both from the ground and inside the cockpit. How do you turn it on?

Turning on Airplane Mode on an Android Device

To turn the airplane mode on or off, you will need to go to the Settings menu and look for the Wireless & Networks section. Tap on it and choose More. Then toggle the Airplane mode on or off.

You can also turn on airplane mode while on the lock screen or home screen. You only have to swipe down the notification area to open the Quick Settings menu. From there, you can toggle the airplane mode on.

Enable Airplane Mode on an Android device
Enable Airplane Mode on an Android device
Enable Airplane Mode on an Android device
Enable Airplane Mode on an Android device
Notice how WIFI and Bluetooth can still be enabled, and GPS (location) did not turn off at all. Mobile Data is darkened out

Activating Airplane Mode on an iOS Device

If you are using an iPhone or iPad, you can turn airplane mode from the Control Center. Just swipe up from the bottom of any screen you are on and then look for the airplane icon on the top-left corner of the Control Center.

You can also go to Settings and then toggle the airplane mode on.

Enable Airplane Mode on an iOS device
Enable Airplane Mode on an iOS device
Notice how WIFI and Bluetooth can still be enabled. Mobile Data is grayedd out

Oh, the Things Your Phone Can Do in Airplane Mode!

Gone are the days when you would have to bring a book along or stuff a deck of cards into your carry-on luggage just to have something to do on a flight. Modern devices now allow you to keep your personal electronic devices on but without the danger of helping to crash your plane. You still cannot send an SMS message or use your carrier's network, but you can practically do everything else with your phone.

Turning back both the WIFI and Bluetooth will allow you to listen to music on wireless headsets or work with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The availability of in-flight WIFI will further enable you to use your phone to make a VoIP call, surf the net, browse, or get real-time location updates, among other things

But because the bandwidth is limited while you are in the air, there is stuff you can do better while in offline mode. You can play offline games, or read an e-book, watch a video, or listen to music for as long as you have downloaded the necessary files stored on your phone. Lastly, even if you just decide to catch some zzz's on your way to your destination, airplane mode will help conserve your battery.

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Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region in Asia, in particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan due to the current pandemic and does not have any travel plans for after his stay in Taiwan.

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