Human flight has become so routine, we sometimes forget just how absolutely miraculous it is. Travelling at over 500 mph across the vast expanses of the sky... while simply sitting in a comfy chair, chewing on a tiny little packet of nuts and complaining about the in-flight movie. For hundreds of thousands of years, taking flight was only a fantasy! We can live out the dreams of our ancestors for the price of a ticket and a cab ride to the airport.
That being said, we should also acknowledge that air travel has the potential to be an absolute nightmare. Just because it's an impressive feat of human engineering, doesn't mean we've worked out all the kinks in terms of the customer experience. Too-small seats, crappy meals, long-delayed flights... oh my. And given that many airlines are starting to charge for the privilege of taking one bag with you... maybe it's possible that we're actually moving backward.
Anyway, taking the good with the bad, here are 42 supersonic facts about air travel. Happy reading.
Air Travel Facts
42. Flight Ninjas
Flight attendants are technically responsible for all lives on board the airplane. Because of this, many undergo special training, which are apparently not too disimilar to the regimen you'd expect for a Navy SEAL. These crucial skills include: all manner of first-aid (including the delivery of a baby), hand to hand combat for self defence and defence of the airplane, and survival skills for the rare case of crash landing in remote locations.
That's right: beneath their calm demeanour and possibly-forced smile, your flight attendant might just be hiding the highly-trained mind and body of James Bond.
41. Super Safe
El Al airlines of Israel is considered one of the most secure airlines in the world.
How secure are they? Well, for starters, they actually equip each one of their planes with anti-missile defense systems, in case of a mid-air attack. That's in addition to a myriad of other security precautions: At passport control, all passengers have their information cross-referenced against intelligence databases from the FBI, Canadian Central Intelligence, Scotland Yard, Interpol, and a host of other services. Airports are also patrolled by hundreds of plain-clothes officers, who are searching for suspicious characters. Oh, and every flight contains at least two armed air marshals, ready to take out any would-be assailants before they have a chance to stand up.
There are controversial aspects to El Al's security though: as has been reported by foreign journalists investigating their safety record, those in charge of flight security in Israel are utterly blunt about their use of racial profiling. Any non-Jewish people attempting to board a plane are immediately singled out for extra questioning, and airline personnel are more than willing to ask questions which probe the edges of common decency.
So is it all worth it in the name of safety? We'll leave that question up to you...
The idea of an engine giving out mid-flight sounds frightening, but every commercial airplane can safely fly with just one engine. That's one of many little under-rated benefits of being an airline customer in 2018.
Operating with half the engine power can make a plane less fuel-efficient and may reduce its range, but planes are designed and tested for such situations. Any plane scheduled on a long-distance route, especially those that fly over oceans or through uninhabited areas like the Arctic, must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for Extended-range Twin Operations (ETOPS), which is basically how long it can fly with one engine. The Boeing Dreamliner is certified for ETOPS-330, which means it can fly for 330 minutes (that’s five and a half hours) with just one engine.
39. Sponge Bob Law
Delta Airlines contract has a specific line allowing each passenger from Hawaii to carry one box or bag of pineapples. To be fair, Hawaii pineapples are some of the most delicious pineapples in the world.
In 2012, an Air Canada passenger flight took a detour and dropped from 37,000 feet to 4,000 feet to help find a stranded yacht off the Australian coast. It took the pilots 25 minutes after the emergency beacon was activated to locate the yacht. Canadians are the most polite people ever!
37. Plan To Fail
In 1974, there was a “Not-For-Profit” airline named Freelandia that served organic food and featured waterbeds. The airline went bankrupt in under a year.
36. Super Safe
In 1990 British Airways pilot Tim Lancaster was half sucked out of a window after it broke off and was pinned to the aircraft for 20 minutes while a flight attendant clung to his legs as the co-pilot made an emergency landing. He suffered only minor injuries and was back flying within 5 months. He must really love the job.
In 2009, two Northwest Airlines pilots lost their licenses when they overshot their planned destination by 150 miles, only realizing their mistake when a flight attendant asked about landing. The pilots were both on their personal laptops and ignored inquiries from flight control for 90 minutes. Thank goodness no one was hurt because of their irresponsible actions.
34. Got Your Back
In 1994 a passenger was killed by a bomb on a Philippine Airlines flight. This led Philippine police to discover a plot to blow up 11 US airplanes in 48 hours over the Pacific. In another incident, which the Philippine authorities shared with the FBI in 1995, Philippine terrorists had planned to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The terrorists were eventually caught.
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In 2001, the heavily-indebted airline AirAsia was bought by Tony Fernandes’ company for One Malaysian ringgit (US$0.26) with (40 million MYR) US$11 million worth of debt. He turned the company around and produced profit in a year. That doesn’t even sound like it should be possible.
32. Emergency Landing
On July 23, 1983, Air Canada’s Flight 143, with 69 people on board, ran out of fuel at an altitude of 41,000 ft. The pilot managed to glide the plane down safely as he was a very experienced glider pilot. 22,300 pounds of jet fuel had been put in instead of 22,300 kg. A Boeing 747 can glide for two miles for every 1,000 feet of altitude.
31. Performance Review
North Korea has its own airline, Air Koryo, which happens to be the only 1 star rated airline according to Skytrax. It’s ok, it’s not like North Korea is receiving a lot of travel, international or domestic.
30. Sexism In The Air
Some airlines will not let an adult male passenger sit next to an unaccompanied child. British Airways was sued because of this practice and lost, admitting to sex discrimination. They have since ended the policy but other airlines still defend it.
29. Golden Ticket
In 1987, a man bought a lifetime unlimited first class American Airlines ticket for $250,000. He flew over 10,000 flights costing the company $21,000,000. They terminated his ticket in 2008.
That's a lot of flying. Here's hoping he didn't have any truly terrible experiences.
The pressurization of an airplane cabin alters the function of taste buds, causing a decrease of up to 30% in the ability to taste saltiness or sweetness. This is one of the reasons so many people dislike airline food.
Then again, we suppose that's exactly what we would say, if (like an airline) we frequently served people meals that were made out of microwaved squirrel-meat and left over packing-peanuts.
"Oh it's not that our food is bad, it's actually your tastebuds!"
27. A Bet’s A Bet
Sir Richard Branson once lost a bet with Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes on the winner of the 2010 F1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. The loser had to work as a female flight attendant on the winner’s airline. At least Branson is a man of his word.
26. Old Fashioned
In 1992, instead of engaging in a messy legal battle over the use of the slogan,"Plane Smart", the CEOs of Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation simply arm-wrestled for whose company would own it. The two companies made a large charity event out of the whole thing similar to professional wrestling. We won’t spoil it.
25. Customer Service
Unlike most airlines after 9/11 (who collectively lost over $50 billion and shed 160,000 jobs) Southwest Airlines didn’t lay off one employee or ground a single flight to save money. Also, when it opened at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, fares dropped 70% and the number of passengers increased sevenfold.
24. Wrong Way
In the U.S. alone, there are as many as 7000 flights in the air at any one time.
As millions of North Koreans go hungry, the country’s rulers have taken up the habit of having McDonald’s hamburgers flown in daily from China on North Korea’s national airline Air Koryo.
22. Get It Together
An investment bank which lost 75% of its employees in 9/11 sued American Airlines for negligence in allowing terrorists on board, and won $135 million.
21. Gotta Go
In 2013, an American Airlines flight from LA to NYC made an unscheduled stop in Kansas City to offload a passenger who wouldn’t stop singing “I Will Always Love You.” Considering how old the song was at the time, this makes very little sense.
On 18 May 1990, Jim Swire, whose daughter died in an airline bombing, took a fake bomb on board a British Airways from London Heathrow to New York JFK and then on a flight from New York JFK to Boston to show that airline security had not improved. Don’t miss a parent’s love for their kids.
19. A lot of Olives
In the 1980's, Robert Crandall, then head of American Airlines saved the company $40,000 a year by removing one olive from each in-flight salad.
18. Meal Plan
Many airlines have a rule that each pilot flying the aircraft eats a different meal, in order to minimize the risk of all pilots on board being ill. This makes a lot of sense, and we’re very grateful for the smart people who thought of this.
One third of the world’s airports are in the USA. That’s pretty crazy considering the US only has about 4.4% of the world’s population.
Below is a map of airports with connecting-flights within the United States. The bigger the dot, the more connecting-flights that particular airport services. Looks like East beats West...
16. Sexism In The Air Part II
The first flight attendants had to weigh less than 115 pounds, be unmarried, and be trained nurses. There were no weight, marital or medical restrictions for pilots. Super fair...
The tires on an airplane are designed to withstand incredible weight loads (38 tons!) and can hit the ground at 170 miles per hour more than 500 times before ever needing to get a retread. Additionally, airplane tires are inflated to 200 psi, which is about six times the pressure used in a car tire. If an airplane does need new tires, ground crew simply jack up the plane like you would a car.
On long-haul flights, cabin crew can work 16-hour days. To help combat fatigue, some planes, like the Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners, are outfitted with tiny bedrooms where the flight crew can get a little shut-eye. The bedrooms are typically accessed via a hidden staircase that leads up to a small, low-ceilinged room with 6 to 10 beds, a bathroom, and sometimes entertainment.
13. Super Safe Part III
Planes are designed to be struck by lightning—and they regularly are hit. It’s estimated lightning strikes each aircraft once a year—or once per every 1,000 hours of flight time. Yet, lighting hasn’t brought down a plane since 1963 due to careful engineering that lets the electric charge run through the plane and out of it, typically without causing any damage to the plane.
12. Not Too Safe
The FAA says there is no safest seat on the plane, though a TIME study of plane accidents found that the middle seats in the back of the plane had the lowest fatality rate in a crash. Their research revealed that, during plane crashes, “the seats in the back third of the aircraft had a 32 percent fatality rate, compared with 39 percent in the middle third and 38 percent in the front third.”
11. No Smoking
The FAA banned smoking on planes years ago, but eagle-eyed passengers know that airplane lavatories still have ashtrays in them. As Business Insider reported, the reason is that airlines—and the people who design planes—figure that despite the no-smoking policy and myriad no-smoking signs prominently posted on the plane, at some point a smoker will decide to light up a cigarette on the plane. The hope is that if someone violates the smoking policy, they will do so in the relatively confined space of the bathroom and dispose of the cigarette butt in a safe place—the ashtray, not a trash can where it could theoretically cause a fire.
If you think about it, it's actually any example of incredibly good design. Although airlines might reasonably hope for passengers to heed their warnings... breaking rules does seem to be an ingrained aspect of human nature. So rather than hoping against hope for that truth to change, aircraft systems designers have accepted people for what they are, and built-in a fail safe.
So, in theory, we suppose smoking in the bathroom is still an option. Just expect a massive fine, and a lot of social shaming.
10. Air Hole
The small holes in airplane windows are there to regulate cabin pressure. Most airplane windows are made up of three panels of acrylic. The exterior window works as you would expect—keeping the elements out and maintaining cabin pressure. In the unlikely event that something happens to the exterior pane, the middle pane acts as a fail-safe option. The tiny hole in the interior window is there to regulate air pressure so the middle pane remains intact until it is called into duty.
The safety instructions on most flight include how to use the oxygen masks that are deployed when the plane experiences a sudden loss in cabin pressure. However, one that thing that the flight attendants don’t tell you is that oxygen masks only have about 15-minutes worth of oxygen. That sounds like a frighteningly short amount of time, but in reality that should be more than sufficient. The pilot will respond to a loss of pressure situation descending to an altitude below 10,000 feet, where passengers can simply breathe normally, no extra oxygen required. That rapid descent usually takes way less than 15 minutes, meaning those oxygen masks have more than enough air to protect passengers.
Those white lines that planes leave in the sky are simply trails of condensation, hence their industry name of “contrails.” Plane engines release water vapor as part of the combustion process. When that hot water vapor is pumped out of the exhaust and hits the cooler air of the upper atmosphere, it creates those puffy white lines in the sky. It’s basically the same reaction as when you see your breath when it’s cold outside.
The world’s busiest commercial airport is Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, with 970,000 airplane movements a year. It’s followed by Chicago (ORD), London (LHR), Tokyo (HND), Los Angeles (LAX).
6. Lost! Part II
In 1971, D. B. Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 – flight 305. He successfully landed the plane and negotiated a $200,000 ransom for the release of the passengers. He then took off and parachuted from the rear of the plane. He was never found.
5. Dog Day
In 2013, a blind man was kicked off a US Airways flight after his service dog repositioned itself several times during a 2-hour delay. The passengers demanded that he be let back on and the flight attendant responsible be kicked off instead. The flight was eventually canceled. Not cool.
4. That’s Fast
The maximum speed of a Boeing 747 is 955 km/h. That’s almost 600 mph.
3. Shakes on a Plane
Very few aircraft have ever gone down because of turbulence alone. Most of the injuries caused by severe turbulence are from passengers hitting their heads on the ceiling of the plane (keep your seatbelt fastened people!). Although in the 60's a plane near Tokyo went down after experiencing turbulence near Mt. Fuji, today’s commercial airliners are designed to withstand forces one-and-a-half times stronger than anything experienced in the last 40 years of flying, and advances in detection systems help pilots avoid severe turbulence.
2. Mile High Club
After declaring bankruptcy, Japan Airlines flight attendant uniforms were sold to the local sex industry after becoming highly sought after by fetishists. An authentic Japan Airlines uniform can sell for as much as $2500 USD online. The Japanese are practical if nothing else.
1. Breathe Part II
In the early years of commercial flight, before pressurized cabins were invented, airline passengers sometimes had to wear oxygen masks during routine flights.