Bluetooth use on Canadian airlines is still up in the air

bluetooth use on airplanes

The use of Bluetooth on airplanes has become increasingly important to frequent air travellers, particularly due to the rise in popularity of wireless Bluetooth headsets.

When Apple debuted its iPhone 7 sans headphone jack, it made a decisive proclamation that wired headphones were not long for this world, and it wasn’t the only mobile company to do so — Motorola’s Moto Z also axed the jack in the name of a slimmer form factor. If the much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy S8 series rejects traditional headphone jacks too, the new industry standard will be all but set in stone.

But while the wireless world changes, airlines must now deliberate on how best to update long-held rules about wireless transmissions. Putting your device into ‘airplane mode’ has long been mandated by air operators, automatically turning off cellular data, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The purpose of the rule is to make sure that transmissions from your device (automatically boosted due to their distance from towers) do not interfere with an airplane’s sensors and cause issues with navigation equipment. In reality, you may have noticed that even if you forget to turn on airplane mode, nothing disastrous tends to occur, due to the fact that modern airplane equipment is robust and difficult to tamper with.

“Devices carried by passengers have various power levels and may use different frequencies, so their effects are difficult to assess.”

Additionally, while the argument about boosted signals goes for cellular connection, the same doesn’t apply to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections, which don’t travel long distances. As a result, Wi-Fi is now enabled in many new planes (at a price) and the newest versions of iOS and Android both allow users to turn on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi while airplane mode is on — at least, in the majority of devices. Ultimately, however, the decision to permit use is up to the individual airlines and the country’s transportation regulator.

In Canada, that situation is more than a little up in the air. One MobileSyrup reader wrote in to tell us that he had experienced varying responses to the use of his Bluetooth headset while in the air —  the practice was disallowed by Air Canada but permitted by Porter and WestJet. We decided to delve deeper into the matter and request comments from those three popular Canadian airlines, as well as from Transport Canada itself.

Shot of Bluetooth settings on an iPhone

The regulator told MobileSyrup that generally its regulations “prohibit the use of cell phones and transmitting electronic devices on-board, where they might interfere with navigation and communication systems,” but there are exemptions that can be sought by operators that allow the use of those devices during the taxi phase and at other times if in airplane mode, as long as those operators prove there are no adverse effects as a result. Since Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can be used in airplane mode, that means that technically, Bluetooth can be allowed at the operator’s discretion, as long as they are given the correct exemption.

Transport Canada was cautious about the overall safety of using portable electronic devices, however, stating: “Transmitting portable electronic devices such as cell phones, smart phones, and iPads, as well as Bluetooth wireless technology, use high frequency, shortwave radio transmitters and receivers like Wi-Fi to send or receive data. Several international studies have been conducted to assess the use of devices on aircraft. Devices carried by passengers have various power levels and may use different frequencies, so their effects are difficult to assess, given that they are not maintained and controlled using aviation safety standards.”

The responses from the airlines and Transport Canada show a somewhat mixed interpretation of rules as they pertain to Bluetooth.

As for the airlines, Air Canada stated that Bluetooth devices are allowed on Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft only (Wi-Fi is available only on its North American fleet), adding that it was required to go through a certification process with Transport Canada allowing it to receive an exemption for personal electronic devices. The operator says eventually it plans to expand Wi-Fi across its entire fleet, and thus Bluetooth use will eventually be permitted across the fleet.

Porter, which does not offer Wi-Fi services, told MobileSyrup it has no “specific guidance for Bluetooth usage, but personal devices must be in airplane mode (or non-transmitting) from the time the boarding door closes to when the aircraft reaches the taxiway on arrival.” Since Bluetooth can now be turned on in airplane mode, the statement seems like a tacit allowance of use.

WestJet says that on its fleet, which offers Wi-Fi service on all but Q400 models, “wireless headsets are okay, although they are subject to the same rules,” meaning that travellers still have to take off their headsets in order to listen to the safety demonstration, for instance.

The responses from the airlines and Transport Canada show a somewhat mixed interpretation of rules as they pertain to Bluetooth. Air Canada is limiting Bluetooth use to Wi-Fi enabled aircraft, WestJet is allowing Bluetooth use regardless of aircraft and Porter appears to be doing the same, considering the fact that travellers can now use Bluetooth while still in airplane mode, though the statement is less explicit.

What does all this mean for the Canadian traveller with Bluetooth headphones? In practice, they should be able to use their wireless headphones unhindered on any WestJet or Porter flight, but when it comes to AirCanada — unless they’re on a flight that offers Wi-Fi, customers would be best advised to find an alternate way to stream music. At least for now.

Comments

  • Bok Choy

    I’m not really sure why you would want to use wireless headphones on the plane. Wired ones can plug right into the airline’s entertainment system. If you don’t have any, you’ll need to buy them from the airline. I just bring my own wired ones. I guess you can make the argument that if I bring my own tablet loaded with movies, wireless headphones would make sense but the in-flight entertainment is more than enough.

    • mxmgodin

      I often travel Montreal-Toronto for work. These are short flights, but on smaller planes with no entertainment systems. Also, when I went to Florida a couple years back, the Air Canada plane didn’t have entertainment system, but instead used the Air Canada app on a mobile device, or through your laptop’s web browser, to access their entertainment content over Wi-Fi.
      In all these situations, you might prefer (or have to) use your own headphones (which may be wireless).

    • Tony

      You’re assuming everyone uses the in-flight entertainment. Sometimes that’s not available or simply not working.

      I normally load up my iPad with content to watch on the plane. Better quality screen plus no commercials nor interruptions. I find in-flight content provided by the airline to have little value to me.

    • Exactly, me too.

    • I don’t like to rely on that. It’s too frequent that the headphone port is outright broken, or at the very least is distorted to the point where it’s uncomfortable to listen to.

    • Yup.

    • Bill___A

      I think the article is pertaining to the use of wireless headphones on your own device versus having to have the wired ones. It is my experience that quite often, the airline’s inflight entertainment does not work which has caused me to ensure I have downloaded content to my iPad. Of course, there are small battery powered devices one can get that would plug into the headphone jack on the plane and transmit Bluetooth to your headset…

    • Jesse Gilbert

      I haven’t been on a flight with inflight entertainment in years. I fly almost exclusively on Q400 aircraft (Porter primarily, WJ and AC when I have no other choice) and none of these planes for 2 hour and less flights provide entertainment. I have used my bluetooth headphones for years without an issue or being told I couldn’t. I would not be a happy traveler if I had to use the wire as I never travel with it and have actually never even used it. Until this article I didn’t realize BT was even a “no go” while flying.

  • JD

    Long live WIRED HEADPHONES!!!!!

  • southerndinner

    I’ve used Bluetooth headphones on AC flights without wifi plenty and haven’t had a stewardess ask me not to so far. I’m curious if they would even notice or care.

  • David Brideau

    Pardon the pun.

  • Swordfish

    Interesting story because Air Canada will basically allow you to do anything provided they can get your last buck for it! If you allow wifi, and they all do now (because there is a buck in it for them), then what is Bluetooth going to bother?

  • TerranceFraser

    Wore bluetooth headphones on an AC Rouge flight not 3 weeks ago with no hassle.

  • windsorsean

    I was the reader who wrote in to MobileSyrup about this. I was asked by an AC flight attendant to stop using my bluetooth Beats Wireless headset and that I could only use one with a cord. This flight attendant must have been very diligent with the rules. After the flight I investigate and found that Air Canada does specifically state bluetooth headphones are not permitted on their website. Luckily the flight attendant did not notice my smartwatch, which also uses bluetooth!

    It should be noted as well that in the US, the FAA states specifically that bluetooth devices are permitted, so it is much more clear.

  • Rimtu Kahn

    I’ve noticed many people using Bluetooth wireless headsets well been noticing for a while, I’d say for over 5 years now. Although 5 years ago people were more secretive about this but lately I’ve noticed they are using it openly and obviously without airline personnel complaining about it.