The thing about flying is this: You are 30,000 feet in the air with people you don’t know flying the plane, people you don’t know sitting all around you, and nowhere to go if things go wrong. You’re trapped. You have no control. Zip. None. When you think about it, it is an exercise in trust or sheer lunacy that people board commercial airliners. Hollywood loves airplane horror films for that very reason. Take Snakes on a Plane (2006) or a zombie filled airplane in 1980’s Nightmare City. Trapped, totally trapped. Then there’s Stephen King The Langoliers, where ten passengers wake up on a commercial flight to discover all the crew and other passengers have disappeared and the plane is on autopilot. When they land, the airport is abandoned… It only gets worse; cue the monsters.
Now, there is perception and fact. The International Civil Aviation Organization has reported that for every one million departures, there are 3.2 deaths. So, what about the snakes and the zombies? More realistically, what about terrorists, dangers during take-off and landing, getting hit by lightning, not to mention fuel running out, fire breaking out, or mentally unstable flight crew? Those are all real enough. And it does totally matter what airline you fly. There are major differences. Here are 15 things that possibly scare you about flying. And they totally should.
15. The Eleven Most Dangerous Minutes Of Any Flight
Some people are scared to death of take-off and landing. With good reason. The three minutes after take-off and the eight minutes before landing are the times when eighty percent of plane crashes occur. Eight out of ten. Why? Simple. It’s because it’s at those times that pilots have to make a series of decisions and take action. Sometimes they get it wrong: Fifty percent of crashes happen because of pilot error. It’s almost always a small error by the pilot, leading to another, and another. Take the classic 1972 case of Eastern Flight 401. On approach to Miami International Airport, the crew flipped switches to lower the landing gear, but the green light indicator failed to come on. They became so absorbed with the light, that they didn’t notice the autopilot had been switched off. It was only ten seconds before the crash that they realized their fatal error. 100 of the 163 on board died.
14. Why The Military Identifies Crash Victims With Foot Prints
The reason is simple: In severe crashes, feet inside boots are probably going to be the only part of the body that survives. That’s a grisly fact. A crash landing because of defective landing gear is one thing. A skidding landing usually leaves most passengers unhurt. Passengers are told to ball themselves up and brace themselves with seatbelts secured. That usually does the trick. However, as we shall see, the fire that may come after is a different thing altogether. Then it’s a question of time. But a headlong plummet into the ground or into a mountain obliterates the plane and everything and everybody in it. The body is seventy percent water and on impact, will probably explode. But remember that for every one million departures there are 3.2 fatalities.
13. If A Bomb Threat Happens When You Are Over Water, You Probably Won’t Hear About It
Think about it. If you’re still on the ground, they tell you about the threat and get you off. What good would it do you to know if you are flying above the Atlantic Ocean? You can’t really land in the middle of an ocean. Well, you can, but you’ll be sucked down if the plane sinks before you get out and if it doesn’t, you are in danger of hypothermia and possible brain damage from being submerged in cold water. Then if you get through all that, how fast will help come? No, airlines won’t tell passengers because the threat may not be true. And even if it is, knowing about it only makes your last moments a living hell. But look on the bright side; if there is a bomb on board, you’ll avoid hypothermia and go out pretty darn fast.
12. The Tap Water On Planes May Have Poop In It
Travelers to third world countries are advised not to drink the water. The same advice perhaps should be issued to airline passengers. The Wall Street Journal did a study in 2002 that showed that tap water on planes had bacteria levels around one hundred times the amount allowed in the United States. The newspaper tested tap and galley water on fourteen different flights all over the world. The result, according to their article was “a long list of microscopic life you don’t want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs. Worse, contamination was the rule, not the exception.” Don’t drink the water, the coffee or the tea. Best advice, bring your own bottle and (or) thermos.
11. Planes Are Regularly Struck By Lightning
Want to join the “my plane got hit by lightning club”? No? It’s a simple fact that planes do regularly get struck by lightning. One day in April of 2016, two planes were struck by lightning as they came onto land at London’s Heathrow. Both landed safely. The flash and the jolt can be terrifying to passengers. In 2015, an Icelandair flight was zapped by lightning shortly after taking off from Reykjavik, Iceland. Passengers assumed they would turn around. But the plane continued its nearly 4,000 mile flight to Denver, Colorado. It was only when they landed that passengers and crew discovered that the lightning had drilled a hole through the nose of the plane. It could have been a disaster in the making, but passengers and crew were lucky that day.
10. Get Up Close And Personal With Superbugs
No, it’s not the recycled air that makes you sick. It’s those seat pockets and tray tables that do it. Take some very potent sanitizing wipes next time you travel. Quick plane turnarounds mean ground crews might have time to collect obvious trash and do a bit of cleaning before the next passengers shuffle aboard. Cold and flu viruses can live for days on surfaces and frequently planes are awash with them. Never mind the obvious toilet horror, be careful of seat pockets where sick passengers may have stashed that tissue they blew their nose into. According to The Huffington Post, sixty percent of tray tables tested positive for the Superbug MRSA. That’s well over half. And another thing: Take your own blanket. Airplane blankets are washed every five to thirty days. A whole month in the air with sick people takes its toll, and can make you sick.
9. Pilots Snooze In Mid-Air
We don’t want to scare you, but between forty-three and fifty-four percent of European pilots surveyed owned up to having dozed off while flying. Or not flying. The drill is simple: Take off, get in the clear, and switch on autopilot. It gets even worse, because a third of those admitted napping say that when they finally woke up, they realized that the co-pilot had been asleep as well. A while back, the British press was full of the news that pilots of an Airbus 330, put their plane on autopilot and snoozed at the same time, while the three hundred passengers munched peanuts and watched movies. Apparently, they had each slept only five hours over the previous two nights. And remember this: A pilot can sometimes only be paid for his time in the air. So, sometimes they do back to back shifts. There are rules, but sometimes it is a case of who will know?
8. Can You Really Trust The Pilot?
Half of all crashes happen because of pilot error. The scary thing is that sometimes it’s not really “error”, but the deliberate actions by a mentally unbalanced pilot. In 1987, a flight to Tokyo crashed because a pilot with serious mental problems put the plane’s engines into reverse mid-flight. In 2015, a co-pilot (who reports claimed was suicidal) deliberately crashed a Lufthansa fight into the French Alps. After the captain left the cockpit, the co-pilot bolted the cockpit door and refused to let him back in. In the final moments, screams and the sound of the captain pounding on the door could be heard. It emerged afterwards that Lufthansa did not do any form of psychological testing on prospective pilots. What about the U.S.? In June of 2016, the Federal Aviation Authority ruled out doing psychological testing on pilots. Some, like US Airways, test pilots before they fly, but not after they take to the air. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?
7. Is There Anything In The Tank?
About one-third of airlines’ costs come from fuel costs. Stories of airlines flying with less than the recommended fuel levels are pretty worrying. Here’s something to think about: It’s the budget airlines who are probably the worst culprits. Take U.K.’s Ryan Air. A few years back, they were told to review their fuel policy after three planes had to make emergency landings because they were close to running out of fuel. The airline had even told pilots to fly slower to save fuel. What airlines can sometimes do is to fill the fuel tank to a level that is enough to make the flight from A to B with little allowance for delays. In the case of the Ryan Air emergency landings, thunderstorms resulted in long delays. So, if you fly budget and run into delays, be afraid. Be very afraid.
6. You Might Have Only 90 Seconds To Escape A Burning Plane
First, forget the polyester tracksuit that can melt to your skin in a fire. Wear cotton. Secondly, you should make certain you sit close to an exit. The why is simple: The Federation Aviation Administration mandates that all aircrafts be capable of being evacuated in ninety seconds. That’s the time it can take for a fire to spread through the plane. So, the closer you are to an exit, the faster you can get out. Chilling studies show that if you are farther than five rows from an exit, your chances of getting out are drastically reduced. And you are probably better off in coach class, with some studies dubbing First Class as the “fatal seats”. Being poor has its advantages. First Class aside, a lot of people survive crashes. What kills them is the fire that often follows.
5. One In Ten Crashes Is Caused By Sabotage
On September 11, 2001, Americans entered a new age. Fundamentalist Muslim terrorism on such a massive scale struck at the heart of American confidence. It’s a fact: Around ten percent of crashes are caused by sabotage, whether by way of a bomb, hijacking, or otherwise. A few years back, a man was caught on a Northwest Flight with explosives in his underwear. That may sound ridiculous, but had he not been caught, he would have almost certainly brought down the plane as it flew. Flying out of major hubs, like Washington D.C. and New York, probably holds the greatest risk. Bombs aside, nutcase hijackers are often talked down by negotiators. The terrorist hijacker is a whole different thing.
4. Pilots Are Served Different Meals To Avoid Food Poisoning
It’s like the rule that the President and Vice President should not travel on the same plane. With pilots, it’s the food that separates them. They get the same food as passengers get, but they get a different meal. Maybe one gets steak and the other chicken. That way, if you choose the steak and get food poisoning and your friend chooses chicken and is okay, at least odds are you will have one healthy pilot. Now, what happens if you both get sick? Who flies the plane? The good news is that food poisoning on planes are rare. Tell that to the twenty-six Qantas passengers who were zapped by food poisoning on a thirteen-hour long flight. Is there a doctor on board?
3. There Are Airlines With Lousy Safety Records
Cute stewardesses; but what about the safety record? We’ve already been through how relatively rare airline crashes are. But remember, that is an average across the industry. Airlines are rated by AirlinesRating.com on a sliding scale, with seven being the best and one being the lowest. The gold standard in airline safety is Qantas, with zero fatalities in the modern jet era. A number of other airlines get the coveted seven, like American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. When you get to Air France with a six, you still feel okayish. What about the airlines with the lowest ratings of one, like AirAsia Indonesia or Wings Air? You might get lucky on one of these cheap budget airlines. But with older planes, lower paid staff and pressures to cut costs even more, perhaps you should consider paying a bit more.
If you think that flights are bumpier these days, you could well be right. Increasing carbon dioxide in the air is predicted to cause a significant increase in wind turbulence over the coming years. Turbulence is scary but very seldom dangerous. What is dangerous is the sudden drops in altitude that the winds can cause. Even the slightest drop of a few feet is just downright terrifying to many passengers. While rapid and sustained drops are rare, they do happen. But take heart. The last airplane in history to crash because of turbulence was a BOAC flight way back in 1966. But keep that seatbelt fastened, even when it’s not required. A hard lick from turbulence could be really dangerous.
1. The Uselessness Of Seatbelts
Well, not totally useless. In the event of mild bumps and a bit of turbulence, they do the trick. But in the case of a crash, they may not be up to the job. Think about it; it’s like traveling in a car and suddenly stopping. The reason cars are equipped with seatbelts is to stop your upper body flying forward and then snapping back, damaging your neck and back, and maybe worse. Whiplash is only the least of the problems you can encounter with the seatbelts fitted in planes. Shoulder harnesses on planes would leave passengers with bruises on their chests, but (probably) an undamaged neck and back. So, why do crew have shoulder harnesses, and the paying customers don’t?