Facts About Flying
More people than ever before are taking to the skies — according to the most recent report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), it's estimated a record-breaking 4.3 billion passengers flew on an airplane in 2017, with the average traveler flying once every 22 months.
Chances are, you’ve been on a flight yourself over the past few months, and you may have caught yourself wondering about the quirks of air travel. Like, why does all airplane food smell the same? Where does the cabin crew disappear to in the middle of the flight? And what happens if someone engages in disorderly conduct while 35,000 feet in the air?
Well, wonder no more. Here are 15 interesting airplane tidbits to think about the next time you’re waiting for take-off. (With your seatbelt securely fastened, of course.)
You can be restrained on board a plane.
On a flight, the captain has the authority to restrain a passenger, or to direct flight attendants to do the same — and they have handcuffs for that very purpose.
Used only in the most extreme cases, these cuffs are not the metal kind you might expect, but often plastic zip ties or seat-belt extenders. Still, they get the job done.
While none of the flight crew can officially make arrests in the legal sense, the captain can call the police to meet the plane at its destination, if he or she believes the crew or the airplane’s safety are in danger.
Airplane food tastes weird for a scientific reason.
Plane food is notoriously bad, but that’s not entirely the fault of airlines. The dry air, low pressure and loud noises on a flight all contribute to a decrease in your senses. So even gourmet meals in first class may taste a little weird. (We’re totally up for trying them though!) To compensate for our dulled senses, the airlines’ catering services up the amount of sugar and salt, which can further diminish the overall quality of the meal.
But it’s not all bad news — according to research, umami (the savory fifth category of taste) is unaffected by altitude, and may even be enhanced by the high frequency of loud engine noises. This may be the reason tomato juice is so popular in-flight.
Airplanes have secret bedrooms.
Some airplanes have private sleeping quarters, and we’re not talking about those plush accommodations in first class.
On long-haul flights, the airplane crew needs to catch some shut-eye too, so some planes are fitted with private bedrooms called Crew Rest Compartments, accessed from hidden staircases behind the cockpit or sometimes at the back of the plane. Inside the small, cramped bedroom, there are about 5-10 beds for crew members to use. And on some planes, the pilot's quarters come with a private bathroom.
The actual space varies, depending on the aircraft, but the room has enough bunk beds or side-by-side beds, divided by privacy curtains, to ensure the crew is well rested.
The safest place to sit on a plane is in economy class.
Flying is one of the safest forms of transportation. But in the unlikely event of a crash, where exactly is the best place to sit?
Of course it depends on the type of crash, but studies show that passengers in the seats at the rear of an aircraft have a better chance of survival. More specifically, some experts believe the middle seat in the back of the plane is the safest, because it is likely to be farthest from the point of impact. (Finally a positive to getting stuck in the middle seat in economy!)
Sitting near to — and being aware of — emergency exits also helps your chances of survival, so put your magazine away and listen to the emergency briefings by flight attendants. Count the rows of seats to your nearest exit in case you have to crawl in the dark. And keep your seatbelt buckled. The most common cause of injury in flight is when there’s turbulence, and passengers are moving around the cabin or not wearing a seatbelt.
A bird can take out a plane’s engine.
A bird strike happens when an aircraft and bird collide in the air. While these incidents are not uncommon, they usually don’t do anything more than create a loud noise, rarely causing accidents.
Still, pilots must go through rigorous training to deal with a bird strike, and in the event of a bird (or flock of birds) taking out an engine, they are trained on flying with only one engine.
Bird strikes to both engines are very rare, but have happened. Remember the Miracle on the Hudson? After the plane hit a flock of Canada geese and blew out both engines, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed on the Hudson River.
Though the majority of strikes to civil aircraft in the U.S. involve birds, runway collisions with other animals, such as deer, turtles, coyotes, bats, skunks and alligators, have also been reported, according to the FAA.
There are still ashtrays on airplanes.
Smoking hasn’t been allowed on most airplanes since the late 1990s, so why are there still ashtrays on board? Surprisingly, according to the FAA’s list of “minimum equipment” for aircraft, an ashtray in the lavatory is still a legal requirement. There are a couple of reasons for this.
For one thing, if someone were to illegally light up in the bathroom (and risk being charged a huge fine), they’d need a place to dispose of the cigarette, and it’s incredibly dangerous to just throw it in the trash where it could light paper towels on fire and start a disaster.
The ashtrays also stay put because airplanes are built for and sold to different carriers with possibly more lackadaisical views on in-flight smoking.
Planes have round windows for a very important reason.
Windows on commercial jetliners used to be square, but after three horrific accidents in the early 1950s involving the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, the airline industry realized that shape matters.
While the fatal accidents of the Comet were devastating, the investigation that followed broke new ground in aviation safety by exposing a structural flaw. The four sharp corners of the square windows were weak spots that, when strained by repeated pressurization, caused the windows to crack, the fuselage to break into pieces, and the plane to explode midair.
With that knowledge, engineers and designers rounded the windows, getting rid of the sharp corners that attracted stress points in the metal, making the new windows much more unlikely to break.
Some airlines skip row numbers.
A common phobia is the fear of the number 13, or Triskaidekaphobia. Those who suffer from this phobia try to avoid bad luck by steering clear of anything numbered 13. In many cultures around the world, the number is associated with bad luck too, so it is not uncommon to see the number eliminated by companies and manufacturers. For example, you might not see a floor 13 in the elevator of a hotel, and you may have noticed there’s no row 13 on your flight.
There are actually way more planes with a row 13 than without, but some well-known airlines, like Air France and Ryanair, have opted to remove the row from their configurations.
Other airlines have removed additional rows as well. Many Lufthansa planes, for instance, have no row 13 or 17, which is another unlucky number in some cultures, such as Italy and Brazil.
Pilots eat different meals.
While this isn’t industry mandated, many airlines require the pilot and co-pilot to eat different meals inflight to avoid the possibility of both pilots coming down with food poisoning. Not only are the pilots advised to eat different meals, but they’re asked to do so at different times. Again, this is a precaution in the unlikely event that they do both have contaminated meals. (Anyone who has seen the movie “Airplane!” will remember what happened when everyone, including the pilot, had the fish for dinner.)
There is some flexibility with what the crew can eat, but unless they brought their own food onboard, they generally eat the same food the passengers do. Well, the same food the business and first class passengers eat. Perk of being the crew!
The 737 is the best-selling commercial jetliner of all time.
On average, about 2,800 737s are in the air at any given time. A Boeing 737 takes off or lands somewhere in the world every 1.5 seconds, and more than 22 billion people have flown on one.
The demand for these planes is so high that they’re made out of a special factory in Renton, Washington, where 12,000 employees work. A 737 can be built in just nine days, and Boeing reports building 737s at a rate of 47 jets per month. Their popularity with airlines is due to their narrow body design, which is efficient and relatively cheap (great for short-haul flights and low-cost airlines), fuel efficiency and reliability, and safety record.
The very first production 737, from 1967, can be seen on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
The Wright brothers’ flight could take place inside a 747.
Back in 1903 in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight, piloted by Orville, traveled 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. This was the first successful flight in the history of self-propelled aircraft and an incredible feat of engineering. (On their fourth attempt that day, Wilbur managed to fly 852 feet, lasting 59 seconds in the air.)
To put things in perspective today, the total length of that very first flight is equal to the length of the economy cabin of a Boeing 747. In just over 115 years, the air-travel industry has come an extraordinarily long way.
Dimming the cabin lights is a safety measure.
There’s a reason why cabin crew dim interior lights during take-off and landing at night, and it’s all to do with safety. If there is an emergency, passengers’ eyes will be acclimated to the dark, and therefore better at seeing their quickest route to evacuation.
It’s the same principle behind lifting the window shades during a daytime landing. Not only does it allow cabin crew to see outside, it also lets in natural light. In the unlikely event of an emergency, passengers won’t be suddenly disoriented by the sunlight and can move away from the plane upon evacuation as quickly as possible. (You may have noticed cabin crew dims the lights on take-off during the day too, which isn’t so necessary, but does save some engine power.)
The wings won’t fall off.
The wings of an airplane are designed to flex, so seeing a little flapping of the wings when you look outside your window is totally normal. In fact, the latest planes are made from carbon composite as opposed to aluminum, which means the wings are designed to flex even more.
But don’t fret: even in extreme turbulence, the wings won’t snap off. The plane also won’t just fall out of the sky. This seems to be one of the biggest fears of nervous flyers, but turbulence does not actually cause planes to plummet from the skies.
Turbulence can be frightening to passengers, but usually it’s no big deal to pilots. Think of it like hitting a bumpy road in your car. It’s more annoying than anything else. There have been cases reported of turbulence-related injuries to passengers, but more than likely, those passengers were not wearing their seatbelts.
Flying is much (much) safer than driving.
Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias, and yet, flying is one of the safest modes of transportation. And it’s getting safer every day thanks to research and testing on everything from cockpit technology to aircraft design to pilot training.
In fact, 2018 was one of the safest years in commercial aviation. According to the Aviation Safety Network (ASN), there were only 15 fatal accidents involving commercial flights, resulting in 556 deaths. The rate is about one fatal accident per 2.5 million flights.
Conversely, Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car accident, according to the National Safety Council. Lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 9,821. So, statistically speaking, it’s much safer to travel by plane.
You may be more flatulent on a flight.
Ever notice a plastic bottle expand at altitude on a flight and then crumple on descent when the cabin pressure returns to normal? The same sort of thing happens to you on a flight. Bloating is normal, but you can try to reduce the discomfort by drinking water, avoiding salty food, walking around the cabin and…passing gas.
Thankfully, the air is moving so quickly in the cabin and many airlines have charcoal deodorizers, so the smell doesn’t hang around. The total volume of air on a plane is reported to be refreshed every two to three minutes, about 20 times per hour, which is much more than can be said for an air-conditioned office building.
Plus, as previously mentioned, your senses are suppressed because of the changes in cabin pressure, so you won’t be smelling anything as strongly in the air as you would on the ground. Let ‘em rip.