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If you’re a frequent traveler, or planning to use air travel during this holiday season, then you need to be aware of unexpected billing while in the air.
You have heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to switch off your devices and turn on “airplane mode” for the duration of a flight. But sometimes, you forget, and it’s no big deal, right?
Airlines are reporting that passengers are complaining about unexpected phone bills after they land. Passengers are learning the hard way that forgetting to switch on airplane or flight mode on their phone can be a big deal — or a big bill from their provider — to the tune of a few hundred dollars.
An Aer Lingus passenger, accidentally left his phone on when it was in the overhead compartment of an Aer Lingus flight to the US. Then weeks after arriving, he received a bill for nearly $300 from AT&T, his phone provider.
The passenger incurred charges due to the phone connecting to the flight’s roaming network.
The charges were racked up by antennas installed on the plane that operate outside an unlimited international roaming plan. The antennas can automatically connect with phones that are not in ‘flight mode’ and run up charges – even when the phones are not in use.
And this isn’t just for Aer Lingus, it’s for most all airlines that have a cellular connection onboard the plane.
And while travelers are advised to put their phones into airplane mode for safety reasons, many airlines offer you the ability to choose to pay and register to use in-flight Wi-Fi. But most people choose to avoid such extras on already high-priced flights.
If a flyer’s ‘Airplane Mode’ is NOT turned ON, the mobile device may connect to the in-flight roaming network and the guest will be billed by their home operator for any usage. When using a mobile phone service in flight your connection is considered, “roaming.” It’s the home operator that sets prices and bill customers. Reputable mobile operators send a pricing SMS text message when a device connects to such a network, on the ground or in the air, to ensure the user is aware of their error.
With the busy holiday travel season underway, you may be choose to consider ways to maximize your time on your flight with your smartphone. Just be careful that the “airplane mode” is switched on or you might be feeling a little less holiday cheer when the bill comes.
What Does Airplane Mode Do?
Even if you never fly, airplane mode offers a quick way to disable many of your device’s battery-draining radios. It can extend your device’s battery life as long as you don’t need any of those wireless radios.
Whatever device you’re using—an Android phone, iPhone, iPad, Windows tablet, or whatever else—airplane mode disables the same hardware functions. These include:
- Cellular: Your device will stop communicating with cell towers. You won’t be able to send or receive anything that depends on cellular data, from voice calls to SMS messages to mobile data.
- Wi-Fi: Your phone will stop scanning for nearby Wi-Fi networks and attempting to join them. If you’re already connected to a Wi-Fi network, you’ll be disconnected.
- Bluetooth: Airplane mode disables Bluetooth, a wireless communication technology most people associate with wireless headsets. But Bluetooth can be also used for many other things, including keyboards and mice.
- GPS: Airplane mode also disables GPS-receiving functions. In theory, GPS is unlike all the other technologies here—a device with GPS turned on is only listening to GPS signals it receives, not transmitting any signals. However, some aircraft regulations do not allow the use of GPS-receiving functions for whatever reason.
When airplane mode is enabled, you’ll often see an airplane icon in your device’s notification bar, which appears on the top bar on Android devices, iPhones, and iPads. You can still use devices on the aircraft—even during takeoff and landing—as long as airplane mode is enabled. You don’t have to power them off.
Why is Airplane Mode Necessary?
Regulations in many countries prohibit the use of devices that transmit signals on commercial aircraft. A typical phone or cellular-enabled tablet is communicating with several cell towers and attempting to maintain a connection at all times. If the towers are far away, the phone or tablet has to boost its signal so it can communicate with the towers. This sort of communication could interfere with an airplane’s sensors and potentially cause issues with sensitive navigation equipment. That’s the concern that brought these laws about, anyway. In reality, modern equipment is robust. Even if these transmissions do cause problems, your plane won’t fall out of the sky because a few people forgot to enable airplane mode!
A more demonstrable concern is that, as you’re traveling very quickly, all the phones on the plane would be constantly handing off from cell tower to cell tower. This would interfere with the cellular signals people on the ground receive. You wouldn’t want your phone to do this hard work, anyway—it would drain its battery and it wouldn’t be able to maintain a signal properly, anyway.
Use Airplane Mode to Save Battery Power
Airplane mode is useful even when you’re on the ground, offering an excellent way to save battery power on your device. The radios on a device use a large amount of power, communicating with cell towers, scanning for and connecting to nearby Wi-Fi networks, waiting for incoming Bluetooth connections, and occasionally checking your location via GPS.
Turn airplane mode to disable all those radios. Bear in mind that this will block incoming phone calls and SMS messages on a phone, but it can be a great battery-saving tip if you really need that last bit of juice.
And just a little more to keep you alert about unwanted billing – A German family was staggered to receive an enormous phone bill after they embarked on a cruise to Norway. Their 12-year-old son had consumed just under 500 megabytes of data while playing games on his phone at sea, and the bill came to an incredible €12,500 ($14,510). Using Airplane mode to kill the cellular connection would have prevented that.
Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!
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