Air China: The computer says NO as even flight-mode phones are banned

Posted on by Mike Evans

Over the past couple of years there has been a welcome relaxation in the pettifogging rules covering the use of mobile devices on aircraft. In Europe and the USA, to my knowledge, it is now increasingly possible to use devices in flight mode during take off and landing. And as far as I can remember there has never been a blanket ban on using mobiles in flight mode once at cruising height.

Last night, though, I encountered Air China and its surprising and inflexible rules. Now Air China is not a bad airline, although service can be a little haphazard at times. I have flown several times before from London to Beijing, mainly because it is a member of Star Alliance, my chosen frequent flier group. I cannot remember ever having had a problem with the use of mobiles during flights, although previously it is possible I had been using an iPad rather than a phone.

Switch it off, now!

Caught on Air China with my ebooks down: Even demonstrating the flight-mode button couldn't mollify the senior purser

I settled in to the nine-hour flight to Beijing, switched my iPhone 6 Plus to flight mode and started a new book. Immediately a flight attendant rushed over and told me to switch the phone off. I pointed out that the device was in flight mode and that other passengers were listening to music on smartphones. No, she wasn’t having any of it.

I was given to understand that under Chinese Civil Aviation rules it isn’t permitted to use a mobile during a flight, even in flight mode. I called over the senior purser and got exactly the same story. 

There appeared to be no objection to the use of a laptop computers nor tablets. Yet many tablets have cellular connection and all, as well as most laptops, have Bluetooth wireless which most people forget to switch off. Even my Apple Watch, which wasn’t suspected, has Bluetooth.

For me, this arbitrary bit of bureaucracy was highly inconvenient since I hand’t had the foresight to download current books to the Kindle application on my MacBook. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I was able to download a few books while in transit in Beijing. 


Later, when I boarded the Air China flight to Hong Kong, I listened carefully to the pre-flight announcements and, sure enough, it was made clear that mobile phones cannot be used under CAA regulations, even in flight mode. This didn’t stop several passengers watching videos and listening to music and the staff on this aircraft seemed unconcerned.

The fact that most airlines in the world now take a much more relaxed view of wireless-equipped devices appears to prove that there is no real risk, as I have always suspected. It is all the more frustrating, then, to find an airline (and a country, by all accounts) flying on through the dark ages.

If this is indeed general Chinese policy I will probably avoid the country's airlines in future. It’s a pity.