Pilots use WiFi during the flight

Using GPS in an airplane: what is allowed & what works?

Map services such as Google Maps are a friend and helper, especially when on vacation. Your smartphone probably also has GPS and every now and then reliably navigates you to your destination. But you can with GPS on the plane too locate? And if so, is that even allowed?

GPS devices are allowed in the aircraft. This is not least due to the fact that most smartphones have a GPS function. Often times, smartphones that are put into airplane mode don't even turn off the GPS function. But if you want to be reliably located, you should sit by the window.

Flight mode until smartphone off - that's allowed

Everyone knows the announcement: Please switch all devices to flight mode.

You should do that too, because in some cases smartphone signals could interfere with the headphones in the cockpit. In other words, unpleasant noises are generated in the pilots' headphones. Kind of like using headphones or speakers at home when a call comes in.

However, if you switch your smartphone to flight mode, the GPS function usually remains switched on.

This is not a manufacturer fault. The only thing is that there are no interfering signals with GPS. This is because the GPS antenna in end devices is a pure receiver. In contrast to the use of the cellular network, no signals are sent, only received.

The use of GPS in aircraft is therefore generally permitted.

Why GPS often doesn't work in airplanes

You sit on the plane, look out the window and wonder where you are right now. Out of habit, you open the next best map app and hope for answers.

Some have probably already tried it, but with many the result was rather sobering.

In theory, navigation devices also work at great heights. You will be located by GPS satellites, which are located at an altitude of around 20,200 km (the cruising altitude is just 10 km).

What prevents the smartphone from locating you is therefore not the flight altitude. It is the aircraft itself. As a cylindrical body made of conductive aluminum alloys, the aircraft acts like a Faraday cage. Anyone who has ever heard the term knows that the aircraft has a shielding effect.

This may be useful for protection against lightning, for example, but it does not ensure good GPS reception.

Since most aircraft are made of aluminum alloys, one can only hope for sufficient satellite reception close to the window.

The latest generation of aircraft: CFRP ensures better reception

With some of the latest generation of aircraft, you also have GPS reception in the middle aisles. This is mainly due to the fact that aircraft manufacturers are increasingly relying on CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced plastic) instead of aluminum.

Airplanes that allow good GPS reception due to a high CFRP content include e.g. Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.

With all other passenger planes, there is a high probability that only one window seat will be sufficient. And that applies to all short-haul machines.

Navi, smartphone and co .: So there is still reception

Window seat secured? Then the locating can start. Depending on the end device, it may be sufficient to hold it normally in your lap - with devices with a “weak” antenna, you may have to hold it directly to the window.

It is particularly helpful to start tracking on the ground. Because the first location is the one that takes the longest. If the aircraft is already moving at over 800 km / h, it is unnecessarily difficult to calculate the starting point. A functioning Internet connection, whether WLAN or cellular network, can further accelerate the location.

However, don't forget to put your phone in flight mode during take-off and landing. This is mandatory for most airlines and the flight staff will point it out accordingly. If the GPS is switched off in flight mode, it can easily be switched on again on most smartphones without leaving flight mode.

In general, you can achieve better results with devices that have been specially developed for navigation. This is because smartphone manufacturers focus on other things than location. The GPS antenna in cell phones is therefore quite small compared to other devices and is often covered by other components.

So you have better reception and a more precise position, e.g. with navigation systems, GPS trackers or sports watches such as Garmin and Co.

However, the principle remains the same with these devices: the best reception is close to the window. In contrast to smartphones, it is also possible to receive useful signals in the middle of the aircraft.

Which apps can use GPS on the plane?

If you want to be located with your smartphone, you can use any map app. However, it is important that the app Offline maps offers.

This means that you have to make sure that you have downloaded the appropriate map before departure (unless you have WiFi throughout the flight). There is no mobile data at cruising altitude. In contrast to GPS data, these are not sent via satellites, but via transmission masts that are 10 km below you.

Free apps that offer this are e.g. Google Maps, Osmand and MAPS.ME. Whereby you have to load several GB of data for detailed maps depending on the flight route.

Google Maps

Google Maps can usually not be used without "large" downloads. The app uses cards from the cache. If you have not looked at all locations in the app before departure with internet reception, nothing or only a very detailed map will be displayed.

If you want a good, usable map in Google Maps, you have to download the entire flight route in advance. However, this is relatively cumbersome because you have to save the entire route individually in the form of squares.

Osmand

Osmand has the most functionality of any offline map app. With the app you can create a Download a 200 MB world map that offers a lot of details. So you can see countries, states, cities and roads, rivers, forests and mountains with little memory usage.

In addition, the route can also be recorded and exported with a plugin (this must be activated in the app settings). If you want more details here, you can download the countries you need individually (in the free version, up to 7 maps can be downloaded at the same time).

The only downside to Osmand is a certain amount of confusion. Some functions can only be found after a long search in the settings.

MAPS.ME

Unlike Osmand, MAPS.ME is a easy to use app with fewer functions. If you want to start right away without scrolling through any settings, MAPS.ME is the best choice. A world map is automatically installed here. The app has a similar amount of details as Osmand, but it lacks landscape marks such as forests, rivers and mountains.

Country by country can also be downloaded here for more details. You can save your route for a few hours with this app, but unlike Osmand, you cannot export it.

How to track your flight route without GPS

Many aircraft (especially long-haul aircraft) make the use of GPS obsolete. If the aircraft has a multimedia screen, you can generally assume that it can also show your current position on a map.

If the aircraft does not have such a function, but has WiFi, you can track your flight live via sites such as flight radar. At the moment, WLAN is only standard with a few airlines. In addition, it is not favorable. For a volume of 200 MB you quickly pay 20 €.

Airlines with WiFi are e.g. Lufthansa and Eurowings. However, e.g. easyJet and Ryanair.

Categories Questions & Answers

John Hoffmann

author

Aviation Student. Data collector. Travel optimizer.