You may be wondering if Airplane mode on your phone allows GPS to pass through? I recently came across an interesting realization whilst I was on a vacation and I noticed that GPS seemed to work in airplane mode in a fairly remote area, with no cell tower nearby, but during the flights to and from the destination, GPS would not work on the plane!

In this article we did some deeper digging to find out why this occurs and if this should be the usual behavior of our mobile devices.

How Does GPS Work?

GPS in mobile devices receives signals directly from several satellites, therefore it is not dependent on cell service or WiFi. GPS is a technology that can only receive data. There are several satellites in orbit around the world that broadcast signals. Your device merely receives these signals and does not transmit them back to the satellites.

GPS will work as long as your mobile device receives a signal from many of those satellites at the same time. GPS operates in Airplane mode since it is a receive-only technology that does not communicate anything back.

The point is that there is no requirement for a nearby cell tower for a GPS receiver (or smartphone) to receive this satellite data because the cellular system is not involved in getting that data or calculating the position fix from that data.

How Does GPS Show My Location In Airplane Mode?

When a smartphone is in airplane mode and used just for GPS receiving, its transmitters are turned off. This implies that it cannot connect to the internet through the cellular system or WiFi network to obtain dynamic map information (e.g., Google Maps) in order to display a position or satellite imagery, although pre-loaded or cached map information may still be accessible and shown.

If you’ve loaded up the map previously while connected to WiFi or cellular, your device may save this in the cache and therefore when you visit it another time in airplane mode, the GPS location is shown with imagery or a background.

Does GPS Work In An Airline Aircraft?

You may have noticed that while on a flight and several thousand feet in the air, GPS does not work. But didn’t we learn above that GPS should work while in airplane mode? The reason why GPS does not reliably work on aircrafts is that the plane acts as a Faraday cage but the metal body and windows of the aircraft makes it not work at certain times.

The very low-signal satellite transmissions cannot penetrate far enough within the plane (away from the windows) to provide enough signal strength for the GPS receiver to latch on. With strong GPS chipsets, this data is frequently received perfectly well near the window. So if you sit at a window seat try holding your phone up to the window and more than likely you would be able to connect to GPS.