Rethinking Airplane Mode

Rethinking Airplane Mode

One of the best parts about the forced confinement of a commercial airplane ride is that you have plenty of time to think about increasingly irrelevant things and wonder exactly why it is we still have them. The feature on our phones called 'airplane mode' has always seemed ridiculous to me, but it is becoming increasingly anachronistic as flying regulations become increasingly more sane (at least, when it comes to electronic devices).

I still remember a trip I made to France in 2005, where I flew on a Saturday and the following Friday afternoon, my phone, which had been 'off' in my bag the entire week, started dinging that it was low on power. This was strange because I thought I had switched it off before we went wheels up and had not touched it the entire week. This particular phone was on a carrier network that did not work in Europe, so it was nothing more than a paperweight to me the entire time I was outside the US, thus it should not have been on, yet here it was telling me that its battery was dying. It must have been on the entire week, in some low power mode, but still active.

It was at that moment when I realized that the regulations about not using a cell phone while in flight was dumb. I had just (inadvertently) proved that electronic devices did not interfere with airplane systems. If there had been even the remote chance of these devices actually being dangerous during a flight, we wouldn't even be allowed to bring them on the flight in the first place. The rules were dumb.

Yet it took many years after this discovery for regulation to catch up with what the rest of the world already knew, so that our devices can remain powered on and in use during the flight. It has been years since this change went into effect and yet, 'airplane mode' on our phones continues to have the exact same behavior.

When airplane mode is enabled, all functionality that wirelessly connects the device outside itself is disabled. This means no cellular, no wifi and no bluetooth. One of these, cellular, makes a small amount of sense. Phones that can't reach a network are constantly looking for a network, and using more power than those devices that are connected. From a user standpoing, having cellular disabled makes sense.

The other two wireless connections do not make sense. At all.

Wifi access points are disabled below 10,000 feet of elevation. The idea here is not that wifi is potentially dangerous, but that regulations want passengers to be more focused during periods of take-off and landing, as those are the most dangerous periods of time during a flight. Not that a passenger is very likely able to save their life during these times, no matter what they do, but it is still more possible during this time than during an issue at cruising speed and altitude.

Bluetooth makes absolutely no sense, especially as our devices are shedding their legacy headphone jacks and relying on this standard more and more for listening to audio. When you enable airplane mode, your connection to your bluetooth headphones is dropped like a plane in free fall (probably not the best analogy, but I'm keeping with the theme here). Where you were just hearing music, a podcast or video content, you're now hearing nothing. To resume, you have to now enable bluetooth and then restart whatever was previously playing. No, this isn't the end of the world, but it is a needless hassle.

Fixing the problem

The ideal way to resolve this problem is to do away with airplane mode as we know it today. Instead, we should have quick access to define what airplane mode means to us and what should be disabled when this selection is made. The had part here is that regulations are likely dictating that devices still have an airplane mode which disables all wireless functions, regardless of the need for such a mode being outdated.

Barring our ability to do that, a compromise here might be to change how airplane mode works, to first look for active wifi or bluetooth and not disable those features if they are in use. This would lead to more questions from users, as to why sometimes features are disabled and why at other times they are not, which is why I don't see this as the best case scenario, only one that could work.

But as it is defined today, airplane mode needs to die a fast and horrible death. Given that we're talking about an industry that hasn't allowed smoking on planes in decades, yet still has no smoking signs everywhere in their planes, along side the ashtrays, I don't have much hope for this being resolved anytime soon. Sadly.