If you are one of the 20 million or so people that suffer from aviophobia (fear of flying), you might not want to read this. For those who like to be informed, however, there are a couple of facts about air travel you should be aware of. After all, you’re putting your life in the hands of pilots, cabin crew, maintenance teams, air traffic controllers and the whims of Mother Nature when you take to the skies. There’s an inherent vulnerability that requires a lot of trust when you buckle up and take flight. Air travel is still statistically the safest form of transportation, so keep things in perspective, but here are a few things the airlines never tell you that you probably should know about.
1. There May Be a Few Loose Screws
We expect a little hardware discrepancy when we put together IKEA bookshelves, but it seems a tad more unsettling when it comes to aircraft maintenance. Apparently a few loose or absent screws is a common and acceptable occurrence. In fact, one commercial aircraft maintenance manual specifies that “one missing fastener in 10 is permitted on a side but not on a leading edge of the panel,” with the added safety caveat that these missing screws not be adjacent to each other. We have to have faith that the aviation experts know what they’re doing when setting these guidelines, but it’s not a very comforting thought, is it?
2. Your Oxygen Mask Only Lasts So Long
We’ve all heard the drill. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically drop down and dangle in front of you. Just don’t expect the flow to last more than about 15 minutes. Relax, that’s usually more than enough time to get down to an altitude of 10,000 feet where supplemental oxygen isn’t required. The flight crew, however, have their own oxygen supplies that last considerably longer, just in case 15 minutes isn’t enough. The cabin crew use portable O2 bottles so they can move about to help passengers.
3. Don’t Drink the Tap Water
The bacteria levels in airplane water can be a hundred times the usual limit allowed on land in the U.S. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal did an investigative story that analyzed galley and lavatory water from 14 flights, and found Salmonella, Staphylococcus, insect eggs and many more contaminants in there. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency sampled 327 aircraft and found 15% tested positive for “total coliform” including fecal coliform and E. coli. Airlines have tried to debunk studies like these, but to be on the safe side, it’s best not to consider airplane tap water to be all that potable. Stick to bottled water in the skies, even if you have to pay for it.
4. Lightning Strikes Happen More Often than you Know
In an electrical storm, a metal object hurling through the sky is a tempting target for a bolt of lightning. Research shows that commercial airlines average one hit per aircraft each year. The higher the altitude, the greater the chances and, statistically, March through July have the greatest number of zaps. In fact, aircraft sometimes trigger lightning when flying through a cloud that is heavily charged. Most pilots strive to avoid a storm, but strikes have been known to happen out of the blue up to 50 miles downwind from the nearest thunderstorm. Today, lightning protection is engineered into the aircraft and its components, especially around the fuel tank, so no need to panic. Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential says, “Once in a while there’s exterior damage – a superficial entry or exit wound – or minor injury to the plane’s electrical systems, but a strike typically leaves little or no evidence.”
5. Pilots Sometimes Snooze on the Job
It’s kind of unnerving to think that your pilot might be literally asleep at the switch, but flight crew can and do nod off on long flights. American airspace doesn’t permit this practice, but British Airways, Qantas, Air France and many other airlines do allow pilots to catnap in the cockpit on long haul flights. This is only allowed when two pilots are present on the flight-deck, so one alert professional should be at the controls even if the plane is on autopilot. But even if it isn’t officially sanctioned, it does happen. In 2009, Northwest Airlines 188 overshot its landing by 150 miles because, it is suspected, both pilots were fast asleep and didn’t answer air traffic control’s frantic calls. Pilot fatigue is a growing concern, as many are feeling worn out by overwork. One BALPA study reported 45 percent of pilots have suffered from “significant fatigue” that could affect their reaction time. Another National Sleep Foundation poll of commercial pilots found that one fifth of the respondents admitted to making a serious safety error because of sleepiness. Maybe a controlled “restorative rest” now and then isn’t such a bad thing.
6. Air Traffic Controllers Sometimes Zone Out Too
It’s not unheard of for air traffic controllers to catch some z’s at their desk, either. This is particularly prevalent in during nighttime mid-shifts when they’re in the tower alone and flights are few and far between. Maybe it’s the soft glow of the instrument panel that lulls them to sleep. There have been a few incidents of radio silence due to snoozing controllers. On March 23, 2011, a lone controller pulling his fourth graveyard shift in a row nodded off for half an hour while on duty. Two planes managed to land on their own, but there was a media backlash about what could have gone down. Back in 2006, a Comair commuter jet crashed on the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky, as the solo tower controller working on two hour’s sleep got distracted. Cost cutting measures and overwork can lead to human errors like this. In fact, between October 2009 and October 2010, FAA “operational errors” increased more than 50 percent. Yikes!
7. Airplane Lavatory Doors Can Be Unlocked from the Outside
Did you know, in case of emergencies, lavatory doors can be opened from the outside? Just flip up the “lavatory” sign on the door and slide the hidden latch. On one hand, it’s a comforting safety feature as you never know when a flight attendant might have to rescue you if, say, you have a heart attack on the toilet or your kid gets stuck in there. On the other hand, it’s kind of disconcerting to know that some creepy prankster could walk in on you in a compromising position. Give this some thought before engaging in some mile high shenanigans.
8. Your Life Jacket May or May Not Be There
It seems some passengers like to take a souvenir from the plane, and flotation devices are a coveted item. The cleaning crew doesn’t always notice they’re missing, so if you are flying over water, you might want to double check you have one before take-off.
9. Pilots Aren’t Fed the Same Food
Airline food is much maligned and the subject of many a joke, and sometimes people even contract food poisoning from it. You might recall a 20/20 investigation that showed there were 1500 health violations reported by FDA inspectors over a four year period. Things like moldy food, dirty galleys, employees not washing their hands, mice and roaches, needles in sandwiches and maggots in snacks were highlighted. Yuck! It’s good to know that pilots are fed different meals, so if one gets ill, chances are the other one won’t. But what about the rest of us?
10. Commuter Airline Safety Isn’t as Good as the Commercial Airlines
Regional commuter airlines may fly under familiar brand names, but they are really subcontractors that don’t necessarily adhere to the same regulations, maintenance schedules or experience levels as their “parent partners.” In the last ten years, almost all the US airline fatalities were in regional airlines. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that these smaller commuter airlines had ten times the mishap rate than the major airlines. All pilots have extensive training, but they might not have as much experience at the yoke as a someone flying the commercial planes. Something to keep in mind.
11. Passengers Are Often Kept in the Dark about Bomb Threats
Passengers won’t necessarily be informed of bomb threats on board an aircraft. Evidence shows a large majority of these threats are false, so the authorities never want to cause unnecessary alarm or panic. Even air traffic control might not disclose all details to the pilots involved. We have to trust in the protocols and get the information on a need to know basis. However, there was one incident in 2009 when there was concern about a suspicious device on Qatar Airways flight QR23. It turned out to be a hoax, but a jet escort was ordered and passengers caught wind of the story via Twitter while in flight. Many passengers were dismayed that they weren’t kept in the loop beyond social media buzz.
12. Those Pillows and Blankets Rarely Get Washed
They may look fresh or brand new in their wrapping, but these comfort items are often reused several times before any washing. Think twice before snuggling up to these cozy items as you never know what they are crawling with. BYOB (bring your own blanket) if you get cold on a plane.
13. That Tray Table Might Not Be Fit for Eating Off
Cabin cleaning crews may or may not give the tray tables a cursory wipe down between flights, so they’re often rather unhygienic surfaces. Passengers touch and spill all sorts of substances on there, and it’s not unheard of for people to change their baby’s diapers there. A recent TraveMath survey found these foldable tables were home to about 2,155 colony-forming units (CFUs) per sq. inch, making them the dirtiest surface on board the aircraft, even beating out lavatory surfaces. Unappetizing, isn’t it. Your best defense is to bring sanitizing wipes in your carry-on to disinfect the tray table yourself.
14. Those Handles on Airplane Doors Are for Flight Attendant Safety
Have you ever noticed those excessively large handles beside airplane doors? Always thinking of contingencies, airplane designers were kind enough to install grab bars here. In case of a chaotic evacuation, flight attendants need something to hold onto as panicked passengers push past them.
15. Dimming of the Lights is More About Evacuation Than Your Shut-Eye
As night falls, airplanes often flick the lights out, but you would be mistaken if you thought this was because the cabin crew want you to have a restful slumber or relax in mood lighting. It’s primarily an evacuation protocol to ensure passengers eyes are adjusted to darkness should an emergency situation arise. How does that ambiance make you sleep now?