The real reason you have to turn off your phone on an airplane

Have you ever sneaked in a little device time while on an international flight? It's hard, right? Ten hours in the air and you're not allowed to play Words with Friends? Impossible.

According to BBC, phones and other devices connect to the internet with radio waves, and if those radio waves are at frequencies that are similar to the ones used by the plane's avionics, they can interfere with sensitive devices like the plane's navigation systems, collision-avoidance systems, radar, ground communications, and the electronics components that actually keep the plane airborne. You know, the totally unimportant stuff. The problem gets worse if you've got a phone that isn't working the way it's supposed to — it might be emitting an extra-strong radio signal, which would be extra-bad and you wouldn't even know it. Your device's signal might even combine with someone else's signal to create a potentially serious problem.

Has a plane ever crashed because someone was using a device?

Notably, there haven't been any cases of airplane crashes or serious problems directly associated with interference from cell phones and other devices... that we know of. Though we'd like to say that it's just because every human being who ever gets on an airplane is super-diligent and always takes care to turn off those devices before takeoff, the truth is that human beings aren't like that. There's always going to be that one person who thinks, "It won't matter if it's just me doing it ..." and before you know it there are like 20 of them and the plane is plummeting towards Earth.

Since that's clearly the more likely scenario, why haven't any planes ever crashed for reasons of phone addiction? 

Here's the thing — we don't know it hasn't happened. The black box can't exactly tell investigators, "Yeah, it was that dude in 17E who kept sexting his girlfriend." An Aviation Safety Reporting System report from 2019 actually found anecdotal reports of 50 separate safety issues directly related to electronic devices. Some were alarming, like the time a 30-degree navigation error was corrected when a passenger turned off his DVD player. 

We'd love to believe that the rule is just an overabundance of caution, or maybe just because people using cellphones on airplanes are annoying, and it needs to stop regardless of potential safety issues. The next time you're tempted, just ask yourself this question: is it really worth it?