10 Common Myths About Air Travel Debunked

Air travel is a complicated, inconvenient, and often scary affair for millions of people. Not just because planes are complicated, or that the security process robs grown adults of their autonomy—it’s that passengers are often left with the feeling that pilots and flight attendants don’t really tell you too much about what’s going on, cloaking their reasons behind specialized jargon and corporate rules.

So it makes sense that people believe all sorts of interesting "facts" about air travel.

The problem is, a lot of them aren't true.

From engine failure to cockpit visits, here are ten airplane myths that needed to be debunked.

1. Those long-lasting trails left in the sky by high-flying aircraft are chemical or biological agents, sometimes called “chemtrails.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked about chemtrails… I’d have about fifteen bucks.

Haven’t heard of chemtrails? You’re in for a good chuckle: According to the chemtrail conspiracy theory, long-lasting trails left in the sky by high-flying aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for sinister purposes undisclosed to the general public.

The truth is much less tinfoil-hat. Called “contrails,” those streams of white fluff that mark an aircraft’s path are formed when humid jet exhaust condenses into ice crystals in the cold, dry, upper-level air—much like the fog of breath that results when you exhale on a cold day.

2. If each and every engine were to fail, you’re duck out of luck.

While it might surprise you, it’s not the least bit uncommon for planes to descend at what a pilot calls “flight idle,” with the engines run back to a zero-thrust condition. They’re still operating, and powering critical systems, but providing no push. In fact, it happens on nearly every flight, and you’ve likely been gliding many times without knowing it.

While that’s somewhat different from engines quitting outright, the glide itself would be no different—both are akin to turning off your car engine and letting it roll downhill.

Now, total engine loss is about as probable as a flight attendant voluntarily bumping your family of eight up into first class, but it has happened. Culprits have included fuel exhaustion, volcanic ash, and impacts with birds. In these situations, pilots are trained to get about 100 miles of glide from 30,000 feet, giving them plenty of time to look for a safe place to land.

3. Opening a plane door while in flight is a real safety risk.

It isn't. When the plane is at cruising altitude, it's pressurized. That pressure means that getting a door open would require superhuman strength.

To quote Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, blogger, and author of Cockpit Confidential: “You cannot – repeat, cannot – open the doors or emergency hatches of an airplane in flight. You can’t open them for the simple reason that cabin pressure won’t allow it.”

So don't worry about the occasional passenger going nuts and everyone flying out of the plane as the result of an opened door, it isn't going to happen.

4. Planes dump human waste while in air.

Doesn't happen. So many people have complained about supposedly being hit by flying waste from above, the FAA even created a fact sheet to address this myth which states: "It's physically impossible for a pilot to dump a tank while in flight." If you do get hit by waste, it almost certainly came from a bird.

5. Pets traveling below deck are subjected to an unpressurized cabin and freezing air.

It’s rough for pet owners to put their beloved four-legged friends in the belly of a plane while they enjoy the spoils of coach air travel. Maybe it’s self-inflicted guilt that has led to the perpetuation of this myth, which, in turn, occasionally results in mid-flight emotional breakdowns. Once, a passenger even requested that we “pull over” so that they could check on their animal. (We didn’t.)

However, at 35,000 feet the outside air temperature is about 60 degrees below zero and there’s not even enough oxygen to breathe! Since that’s worse than being stuck in that non-reclining seat directly in front of the lavatory, you can rest assured that the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated.

Maintaining a safe temperature in the hold is pretty straightforward. But, it can be difficult to do so while waiting on the ground in hot weather. That’s why many airlines don’t allow checked pets during the summer months.

If you’re still worried about Fluffy or Spot, you can always mention it to your flight crew. They’re usually happy to check with the pilots to confirm the holds are at a comfortable temperature.

6. You can get stuck on a plane toilet if you flush while sitting down.

It's a myth that sounds so plausible even the BBC believed it: In 2002, the news agency ran a report about a woman who got stuck to an airplane toilet after she flushed while remaining seated. The story claimed that the flush had created a vacuum seal that trapped the passenger to the toilet and that the woman had to be freed by airport technicians after landing.

The truth is, you can get stuck, but only if your body forms a perfect seal on the vacuum toilet. This is difficult to do. Adam Savage of "Mythbusters" tried it out, and despite serious suction, got up without a problem. But it's still probably a good idea to stand before flushing.

7. The cockpit is off limits.

Ever since security measures were heightened, passengers seem to think that cockpit visits are prohibited—not so!

You can’t go up and say hi mid-flight, of course. However, you’re more than welcome to drop by when the plane is parked at the gate, either before or after the flight. (Just be sure to ask a flight attendant first.)

The offer isn’t just open to kids, either. While it’s great to bring your tots up for a picture in the captain’s seat, crews are generally delighted when adults stop by on their own as well.

8. Brace positions aren’t your safest option.

Google “brace position” and you'll be treated to pages of results from people who believe that, in the event of a crash, it is not safer to sit in the brace position than sit normally.

Some insist that it's encouraged only to preserve passengers’ teeth (thereby making body identification easier). Another gruesome theory is that the position is designed to quickly break flyers’ necks and kill them quickly, because it is cheaper for an airline to pay for a wrongful death settlement than injury compensation.

Brace positionImage credit: telegraph.co.uk

Of course, these are simply not true! Studies of airline crashes have shown that the brace position, when done correctly, saves lives. By placing your head on the seat in front of you, you will significantly reduce the risk of head trauma in a crash.

9. The air on planes is full of germs.

Studies show that the air in a crowded cabin is less germ-laden than most other crowded spaces.

Passengers and crew breathe a mixture of fresh and recirculated air. Using this combination, rather than fresh air only, makes it easier to regulate temperature and helps maintain a bit of humidity. The recirculated portion is run through hospital-quality filters that capture at least 95% of germs—far more frequently than occurs in buildings.

For those people who do get sick from flying, it’s probably not from what they are breathing but from what they are touching. Lavatory door handles, contaminated trays, and armrests, and so on, are the germ vectors of concern, not the air. A little hand sanitizer is a better safeguard than the masks I sometimes see travelers wearing.

10. Modern commercial jets are so sophisticated that they essentially fly themselves.

If you want to really get a pilot’s pulse racing, go ahead and suggest that the plane is practically flying itself.

The best analogy is made by Smith at Cockpit Confidential: Modern technology helps a pilot fly a plane the way it helps a surgeon perform an operation. A jetliner can no more “fly itself” than an operating room can remove a tumor or perform an organ transplant “by itself.”

“Cockpit automation is not flying the plane.  The pilots are flying the plane through the automation.  We still need to tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  There are, for example, no fewer than six ways that I can set up an “automatic” climb or descent on the Boeing that I fly, depending on circumstances. And you’d be surprised how busy a cockpit can become — to the point of task saturation even with the autopilot on.  Even the most routine flight is subject to countless contingencies and a tremendous amount of input from the crew.”

Not only are your pilots not napping their way across the Atlantic, but 99% of takeoffs and landings are still done without computer assistance! Meaning your pilots still deserve that round of applause when the plane lands.

If you like this article and want to read more of an insider’s view on air travel, check out 19 Things Flight Attendants Wish You Knew.” Have any questions about suspect facts we didn’t cover? Let us know in the comments below!

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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