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Why you can't always use Bluetooth headphones on planes

We all know to turn off our cell phones at the beginning of a flight, but what about our Bluetooth headphones?

Published onMarch 7, 2023

If you’ve ever boarded an airplane, you’ve undoubtedly been informed that you need to turn off all your mobile electronic devices prior to takeoff. But as technology changes and services like in-flight Wi-Fi have become commonplace, is it strictly necessary to follow these guidelines? Do you have to turn off your Bluetooth headphones too? Yes, but not for the reason you might think.

Why do you have to disable your phone’s radios?

Before wireless communication became as ubiquitous as it is today, there was a fear that radios in cell phones would cause a number of headaches when people used them on flights. Specifically, the fear was that wireless communications could potentially interfere with an instrument-guided landing, or even disrupt communications in the cockpit by adding noise to their conversations and transmissions if there was any problem with shielding or the fuselage. However, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s extensive 1990s review of potential issues to equipment turned up little evidence of danger, so what gives?

A photo of a British Airways airplane taking off.
Believe it or not, the rules have little to do with danger to the airplane itself.

The recommendations offered by the commission are pretty straightforward, and seem to center around the idea that while it didn’t find compelling evidence to ban all personal electronic devices, it couldn’t guarantee they would be safe forever. Therefore, it’s up to the airlines to figure out what their rules should be. Frustrating as it is, the recommendation makes a lot of sense.

It may surprise you to find out that the most severe rules limiting wireless tech aren’t from the FAA, but rather the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Essentially, when your phone is on the ground and moving slowly, it connects to the tower nearest to it (or with the strongest signal). It’s within what’s called radio sight, which you can think about similarly to a person’s line of sight, but it really describes the way that an area’s topography and environment can obstruct and therefore diminish signal strength, rather than interrupt linear visibility. Towers are constructed in locations meant to account for natural features of a given region, and avoid dead zones and dropped calls—at least, when you’re on the ground.

When you’re 30,000 feet up, there’s no hills, trees, or buildings to interrupt a radio tower’s signal, which dramatically increases the number of towers “visible” to your phone. When you add in the fact that airplanes move at 300 miles per hour, it means your phone will start trying to connect to way more cell towers than usual, often all at once. If you try to place a call in this situation, you could inadvertently cause problems for the network. Multiply that by however many people on your flight are also shirking the rules about phones and placing strain on the same exact towers—and bearing in mind that there are also roughly 25,000 domestic flights in the US per day— and the FCC’s attempt to prevent airborne phones causing network problems on the ground makes a lot more sense.

The instant the wheels of the airplane leave the ground, your cell radio must be disabled by the letter of the law. Once you’re airborne, though, you should be able to use airline-provided access to air-to-ground services over Wi-Fi.

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off. — 47 CFR 22.925

What about Bluetooth headphones?

Bluetooth headphones themselves are fine for most air travel, so long as you obey the directions of the crew. However, the rules governing the use of headphones on a flight are different from the ones governing when it’s okay to use a cell phone.

The open Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II charging case with the earbuds inside.
Edgar Cervantes / SoundGuys
The radios that Bluetooth uses are even less of a concern due to their very low power.

Bluetooth operates at a much lower power, and doesn’t interact with cell towers, so it shouldn’t be able to cause any avionics problems. It also doesn’t operate in the same frequency bands as the instruments in an airplane. At least, it shouldn’t. However, like anything that blocks your ears: Bluetooth headphones can prevent the communication of important information to you as a passenger, and that’s a potential avenue for issues. Remember the safety presentation at the beginning of your flight? Turns out educating passengers qualifies as an important duty to crew members, and drowning that out with headphones isn’t the best idea.

This is where the FAA comes back into play. In an issued guidance on wireless devices in planes from 2013, the FAA allows the airlines to determine what devices interfere with the navigation or communication systems of the airplane—and that can include some pretty broad interpretations of what “interference” is. Even in cases where Bluetooth isn’t going to cause actual signal interference, airlines in the past have banned the use of any wireless tech at all in some of their planes. For example, a distracting ringtone caused a crew member of a flight to be highlighted in an enforcement memo in the past, meaning disruptive audio absolutely has precedent for enforcement in the air.

If an attendant asks you to remove your headphones or turn them off for takeoff, listen to them and don't argue.

You have to remember that there are lots of rules and regulations that don’t always explicitly deal with the problem in question, but still apply to the effects of the issue. In this case, if a crew member determines your behavior interferes with their duties onboard the aircraft during operation, you’re in hot water. If they ask you to remove your headphones or turn them off for takeoff, listen to them and don’t argue. You could see thousands of dollars in fines, get kicked off the flight, or worse!

Will this ever change?

A photo of a Google Pixel phone with Airplane mode enabled.
You can enable Bluetooth connectivity while still in airplane mode, though it make take some poking around

Of course, times change, and we’ve known since the 90s that non-emitting personal electronics devices aren’t likely to interfere in the normal operation of a plane. Now that more and more entertainment systems use Bluetooth (and the standard is evolving to allow announcement streams), this may all become academic at worst. However, just because something isn’t likely to make a plane crash doesn’t mean it won’t interfere with the crew and their duties, and you should always strive to avoid that at any cost while you’re travelling.

It’s possible that once the FCC is convinced all the kinks are worked out with cellular tech, the agency might relax its rules on using phones in airplane mode. However, in that eventuality, expect the FAA to step up enforcement of the disruptions that it may cause in-flight.

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