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Strange Things Airlines Hide From Passengers

Written by Kevin Jennings

While some people can go decades without ever getting on a plane, for others flying is a practically an everyday part of life. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of air travel or preparing for your first flight, here is a list of things you probably didn’t know about air travel, most of which you probably didn’t want to.

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Everything Is Disgusting

            Covid certainly did a lot to help a number of the problems in this category, but not all of them. As cleaning guidelines relax while the world continues to reopen from the pandemic, there’s a good chance things will go back to the way they used to be.

            For starters, the tray tables you use to hold your book, laptop, or in flight snack are the same tables that are often used as changing stations when the bathroom line is too long for a parent or their screaming child to wait. These tables are rarely, if ever, cleaned properly. Unless you’re taking the first flight of the day after the plane sat somewhere overnight, you can be confident that the most cleaning that tray table in front of you has had is a cursory wipe from the same sponge or rag that was used on all 200 other tables. It may be in your best interest to bring your own sanitary wipes and give the table a good cleaning yourself, just to be safe.

            Of course, it’s not just the tray tables, the bathroom is disgusting as well. Maybe not a large surprise for a room dedicated to vacating one’s bowls, but the bathrooms are so gross that flight staff will absolutely not use the airplane bathroom for anything other than washing their hands unless there is absolutely no way to avoid it. If it’s a short enough flight that the staff can wait until landing to use the airport bathroom, you may be advised to do the same. If you do have to use the bathroom, just be courteous enough not to wait until the last minute. The cockpit has to be informed when the bathroom is in use and the plane cannot begin landing procedures while any passengers are standing, so your tiny bladder may cause the plane to lose its place in line and delay the plane’s arrival.

            Perhaps you enjoy curling up with a warm blanket and taking a nap during your flight. If so, keep in mind that blankets and pillows are reused between flights, just being folded and put back into storage rather than cleaned in any way. The same blanket you’re trying to use to catch some Z’s could be the same blanket someone spilled their coffee on, a baby spat up on, or a randy couple used to conceal their entry into the mile high club. If the cleaning crew was feeling particularly generous, your used pillow may at least have been given a fresh pillowcase, but don’t count on it.

            Finally, don’t take your shoes off. The flight staff will absolutely judge you and your complete ignorance, as the carpet has been drenched in spilled food and beverages, vomit, blood, and anything else you can imagine without having ever been cleaned properly. Needless to say if you drop your snack, the 5 second rule (which we all know is a myth anyway) absolutely does not apply on an airplane. Perhaps we’d all be better off boarding the plane in hazmat suits.

Your Meal is Gross and They Know It

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            If you’ve ever taken a flight that was long enough to include meal service instead of just a bag of pretzels or peanuts, you’ve probably been disappointed by the quality of that meal. This isn’t entirely the airline’s fault.

            Humans perceive taste differently at altitude. Our salty and sweet taste buds are 30% less sensitive at normal cruising altitude for a plane. Furthermore, the thinner, dryer air greatly numbs the sense of smell, which is a crucial element to how we perceive the taste of foods. In short, all food is going to taste worse on a plane, so the first class customers telling you how fantastic their meal was are probably exaggerating about their experience just to remind you how much better life is for people with money.

            Scientific excuse or not, however, airline food is still terrible. For this reason, the flight staff has their own cart with different meals than the passengers. While nothing can be done about the deadened senses at high altitudes, the crew at least has access to things such as fresh fruit and bread, desserts, and other, much more appetizing meals than those being provided in bulk to everyone else on the plane.

            Oh, and never drink the coffee or tea. If you need caffeine, just ask for a soda or buy a coffee after you pass the security checkpoint in the airport. Plane water, the water they use to make your hot beverages, should probably not be consumed by humans. The water is stored in a tank on the back of the plane, and by all accounts these tanks aren’t ever cleaned. While this test performed by the Wall Street Journal took place all the way back in 2002, bacteria levels in the water were found to be as much as 100 times the limit allowed in the United States. Despite this investigation, there does not seem to be any evidence that the tanks are being cleaned any more regularly than before.

            Since the food is barely edible anyway, hopefully you won’t be too disappointed to learn that the flight staff will also do their best to hold out on you. During long flights, flight attendants will often delay meal service so more people have the chance to fall asleep. The more people that are sleeping, the fewer people they have to serve. This isn’t a cost cutting measure imposed by the airlines, they just choose to handle it that way because it’s less work for them.

Safety is Taken Seriously

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            This certainly isn’t a bad thing, it just manifests in ways that passengers may not realize. For example, the classic 1980 movie “Airplane!” isn’t just a comedy, it’s an important, cautionary tale. While not technically an industry standard, on most airlines the pilot and copilot are not allowed to eat the same meal or share their food. At least one airline goes so far as to forbid pilots who will be flying together from eating at the same restaurant before a flight, unless they eat at least an hour apart. This is to ensure that in the unlikely event of contaminated food, both pilots won’t be struck with food poisoning at the same time. A flight attendant asking if there is a doctor on board can be cause for an alarm, but asking if there is a pilot on board would be cause for mass hysteria.

            You may have noticed that during takeoff and landing, the lights in the cabin of the plane get very dim. This isn’t to set the mood, so please keep your seatbelts and pants fastened.  The cabin of the plane is actually kept dim so that in the event of an emergency, your eyes will already be more adjusted to the darkness. This will allow for a faster evacuation of the plane rather than adding the additional panic of not just an emergency, but sudden darkness after being exposed to an extended period of bright, indoor lighting.

            In the unlikely event there is an emergency, specifically depressurization of the cabin, the oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling. It’s no secret that this is a bad sign and that you need to immediately secure the mask and fasten your seatbelt. What airlines don’t tell you, however, is that if this happens, you had better prepare for a very steep drop. Oxygen masks on planes only provide about 15 minutes of air, and it generally takes the plane 10-20 minutes to descend to an altitude that will allow for normal breathing. Since the high end of that estimate is longer than the amount of air the masks provide, be prepared for the pilot to dive down as rapidly as is safely possible rather than opting for a more comfortable descent that risks running out of air.

            If you’re prone to bouts of anxiety and not a particularly good flyer in general, you may have a tendency to overly monitor the activities and attitudes of the flight staff, especially during turbulence, to gauge whether the plane is headed for impending doom or not. While this may be comforting when they’re calm, in the event they are panicked or stressed about something, usually obnoxious passengers or just general overtiredness, you’re creating unnecessary worry for yourself. Despite our natural intuition to the contrary, if there is an impending emergency, the captain and crew will keep passengers informed of what’s happening. They would rather have everyone be as prepared for whatever emergency is going to take place as possible to ensure maximum chances of survival than withhold information just to keep everyone a little calmer for a few minutes.

            The only thing taken more seriously than safety is cost cutting. Fuel is expensive, but it’s also heavy. The more fuel that’s loaded onto a plane, the heavier the load will be. The heavier the load, the more fuel needs to be burned to get off the ground. That means a properly stocked plane is more expensive to fly than a plane that has decided to live dangerously and bring just enough fuel for its intended destination. Unfortunately, with rising fuel costs, more companies are choosing the latter. Not only is this a safety concern, but in the event of unexpected delays or bad weather, an increased number of planes are being diverted and making emergency landings than in the past.

You’re Not the Only One That Wants to Sleep

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            For many people, sleeping on a flight is a necessity, or at least an expectation. The stress of travel combined with early flight times can often result in passengers being overtired by the time they board the plane and wanting to get a little sleep. In the event of a longer flight, such as from the United States to Australia, staying awake the entire time just isn’t practical.

            That doesn’t just go for the passengers, either. Not only do flight attendants on long haul flights need to get some rest, they will be much more comfortable than you doing so. Most large commercial aircrafts, such as the Boeing 777 and 787 have a secret bedroom for the flight staff. It’s hardly a luxurious or spacious master bedroom, but it does have ample room to actually lay down. It’s certainly a big step up from the small, economy seats that barely recline making for an extremely uncomfortable rest. Of course, each bed in the secret bedroom is also fitted with a seatbelt.

            So that covers passengers and flight attendants, but what about the pilots? There’s a copilot for a reason, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that on long flights, both the pilot and copilot are scheduled for rest breaks. It’s much preferable to the alternative of having the pilots loaded up with caffeine pills or amphetamines to stay away for a 16 hour flight. Despite these scheduled breaks, over 50% of pilots surveyed in the U.K., Sweden, and Norway admitted to having fallen asleep while flying a commercial plane; these numbers are unlikely to be much better elsewhere in the world. If that wasn’t bad enough, nearly a third of those pilots said they woke up to discover that the other pilot was also asleep. And yet, flying is still the safest way to travel.

Flying With Pets is Not a Good Idea

            Specifically, flying with your pets in the cargo hold. Airlines aren’t being negligent in this regard, there’s just only so much they can do. Pets may have to wait outside for extended periods of time in blistering heat or freezing cold while the cargo is all being loaded on the plane. While the temperature itself is unlikely to cause any serious harm, they are also subject to all the loud noises of an airport which are extremely stressful for an animal in a carrying case.

            Most pets don’t like to travel at all, especially in a carrier, even if it’s just a short distance. Even a lot of people don’t like air travel; it can be stressful and unpleasant. For pets in the cargo hold, this is amplified. They are loaded into a dark room filled with nothing but luggage and maybe another frightened animal or two. The situation can be so much on a pet that the extreme stress alone is enough to cause some of the animals not to survive a flight. If you absolutely have to fly with your pet and it’s small enough, you can bring it into the cabin and stow it under the seat in front of you.

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You Can Be Upgraded After Takeoff

            It doesn’t happen very often, but it is possible to be bumped to first class after the plane has already taken off. The two main reasons this doesn’t happen often are because the first class seats are usually already taken, and because the flight attendants may need to file paperwork in order to upgrade your seat. Still, it is possible. So how do you do it? Mostly by things that aren’t really in your control.

            Some of the things that can help a person get bumped up to first class midflight are being pregnant, being extremely tall (since the seats in economy are so cramped), and just being very physically attractive. The two things you can control are being well dressed and being extremely nice. Because these upgrades are done at the sole discretion of the flight attendants, it pretty much comes down to whoever they feel like upgrading. Being nice to the flight crew is good policy anyway as they’re often overworked and overtired, and because it’s good to be nice to people all the time anyway. If you’re the more cynical or narcissistic type, now you have a selfish reason to be friendly to the crew as well.

            One other way to get upgraded is to be a doctor…or to have a medical emergency. In the event of a medical emergency, when staff asks if there is a doctor on board, following whatever first aid treatment needed is given, both parties will often be moved to first class if there is room. This will both give them more room, and place the doctor and patient next to each other, as well as close to the flight attendants, so that the situation can be monitored closely. Just remember that there usually aren’t seats available in first class, so please don’t go around faking medical emergencies in the hopes of getting more legroom.

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