The air travel sector has come a long way since its humble, rag-winged and wooden-structured days. Turbojets move us through the air silently and comfortably at speeds the Wright brothers could only dream of in their wildest fantasies. 30,000’ above the surface, we slice silently through visible precipitation at over 500mph, traversing the most compromising terrain with an effortlessness that would make the Donner party sick to their stomach. We will never truly master flight; each advance that supersedes yesterday’s technology simply provides a platform for tomorrow’s foundation – but we sure have come a long way.
We’ve come so far, in fact, that aviation is shrouded in just as much mystery to the average person now as it was 100 years ago. So many complex systems are at work throughout the course of your flight that it would hurt your brain to try and process their functions in their entirety; plus it’s easier to sit back and enjoy the in-flight movie. Some questions however, linger in the back of our minds and beg to be answered while some questions we may never even have thought of. The safest place to sit on an airplane in case of a crash, the probability of engine failure or why the food sucks so bad are all questions that we’ve asked ourselves at one point in time. But have you ever wondered why the cabin lights dim during takeoff, why there are ashtrays in the most restricted of non-smoking areas or what that little hole in your window is doing there? If you didn’t know, now you shall.
The prospect of rocketing through a convective storm in a conductive metal tube is probably a bit unnerving for some folks as lightning doesn’t seem to mix well with anything living and most things not. If you fall within that segment of the populace, here’s a fun fact to chew on: each commercial airliner gets struck once a year on average, or every 1,000 hours of service.
Despite this sobering fact, lightning hasn’t caused a commercial plane crash in almost 60 years.
Special features are built into an airliner’s design that allows it to withstand a lightning strike and dissipate the electrical charge off into the atmosphere without damage. Insulated fuel systems, composite construction, and special, current transferring static wicks are among the many safety features that make a lightning strike negligibly dangerous.
The rock and roll era of the outta-control ‘80s still allowed you to smoke on planes until it was banned in 1990; anything that produces smoke, is on fire or smoldering with the potential to start a fire is strictly illegal. Even electronic cigarettes and vapes are not allowed as of 2015. So, with all the aversion to such smoky activities, why then are airliners still building planes with built-in ashtrays? The fact is, some people will just do it anyway, and being the case, the Federal Aviation Administration figures it’s better to provide these rule breakers with the means to properly extinguish their cigarette rather than risk its disposal in a trash bin with flammable materials that would jeopardize the entire aircraft and occupants.
Some find themselves jockeying for positions long before their flight even boards, stressing out over the optimal seating. If you find yourself a victim of jockeying for a safe seat, fear not; there’s nothing you can do in the event of a crash but hold on and pray for a miracle. Statistically, 95% of all aviation incidents do not have fatalities. Of the 5% that do; the rear third of the aircraft’s seating suffers a 32% fatality rate compared to 39% and 38% in the middle and front sections. This is misleading however because depending on the type of incident, any area of a plane could prove equally dangerous in the event of a crash while another area remains completely intact. If you want to improve your odds, sit near an exit so that if you do find yourself in an emergency situation, you can fast-track off the plane with haste.
There’s much more to an airplane than you will ever see; the complex mechanical and electrical systems buried deep within the belly are accessible only by authorized personnel. Another area off-limits to the average passenger is a place called the CRC (crew rest compartment).
They are very similar to mini hotel rooms buried in locations off-limits to passengers.
Triple-7s and 787s sometimes feature a secret staircase to access these small, windowless cubbies and allow crew members a bit of rest on long-haul flights. The location and layout of each CRC vary by aircraft; some only have a few beds while others have a hallway lined with bunks.
If you’ve ever been on a night flight where takeoff and/or landing happens between dusk and dawn, you may have noticed that the pilot will dim the cabin lights during these phases of flight until the plane is either safely on the tarmac or in a stabilized climb to flight level. If you’ve ever wondered about this, the cabin lights are dimmed for safety. In the unlikely event of an incident during takeoff or landing (which are the most dangerous phases of flight), the lights are kept dim to help your night vision adjust to the outside darkness quickly should you need to make a quick exit from the aircraft.
If you know anything about aviation, you’ll know that it’s shrouded in multiple layers of redundancy. Redundancy in electronics, mechanical design, navigation fail safes and even SOP (standard operating procedures) help minimize the likelihood of a small mistake snowballing into a catastrophic failure mid-flight.
Part of this redundancy is built into the engine design, and airliners are designed to operate on only half of their engines, the A380 is actually designed to operate with two engines on the same wing non-operational.
It takes a lot of power to get off the ground, but once in the air maintaining straight and level flight is a matter of equalizing the ratios between thrust, drag, gravity and lift. An airliner should, in theory, be able to lose a prescribed number of engines (specific to the aircraft) and maintain limited controllability enough to make an emergency landing.
You may have noticed there is a tiny hole in the inner window panels of the cabin windows and wondered what this was for. To make a highly technical discussion brief, there are three layers of "window" in between you and the atmosphere. The middle pane is a backup in case the outer window becomes compromised. Rather than stress this middle-layer window pane out with pressurization cycles, the hole allows pressure to equalize in the cabin and only apply pressure to the outer layer. Engineers saw no reason to needlessly wear out the backup protection when only the outside layer of windows needed to be pressure-sealed.
The answer to this is a bit more complicated than you’d expect and airlines aren’t completely to blame for the crappy food, (actually they are, but their reasoning is sound once you understand it).
First off, it’s very hard to cook at 30,000’, and rather than a fully staffed kitchen to feed 200 people (think about it), it’s much more economical to reheat food.
Secondly, the food is overcooked to make it easier to cut without the aid of a sharp knife (obviously we don’t want any of those flying around up there with us). Thirdly, your taste buds interpret taste differently in the extremely dry airplane air (about 4% humidity).
You never care until you need to know, and unlikely has the thought ever crossed your mind how much oxygen is actually available in those masks should rapid depressurization occur. The truth is it’s only about 15 minutes of air. In most cases, this is more than enough because the only reason passenger oxygen exists is to keep you conscious in the event of rapid depressurization long enough to allow the pilots to bring the crippled aircraft to a flight level with a breathable atmosphere, typically 10,000’ or less. To do this, the pilots will engage the aircraft in a very rough and scary descent, a very carefully calculated maneuver that’s far better than staying at altitude a second longer than need be.
Aviation takes safety to unsurpassed levels redundancy and thoroughness that extends well beyond the actual flight itself. In fact, aviation safety never rests; there are rules (for safety) that stipulate what pilots can eat, even before a flight.
Every carrier is different, and though there is no federal regulation governing such activity, almost all carriers have rules regulating pilot and copilot meals.
In a nutshell, they typically cannot eat the same in-flight meal or even the same meal within an hour of the other. Silly as this may sound, this is to prevent food poisoning affecting both pilots at the same time.
The ventilation system in commercial aircrafts is not only good for passenger comfort; complain about it as you will, but should the environmental system suddenly take a nose-dive and leave the cabin with no circulating air, it would become literally become unbearable in no time – not to mention really gross. Yes it’s cold, and yes it’s pulling super dry air from the adjacent 30,000’ atmosphere around you in (where not much moisture can even hang onto air molecules in the first place) but it’s keeping you healthy. Researchers found that blowing the vent directly on you helps prevent airborne contaminants from entering your repertory system by being blown off into other directions before they reach your nose and mouth. If only you knew how dirty an airplane really was…
To those flyers who have relatively low flight hours, turbulence can be a scary occurrence. Seasoned travelers will sit back and whether the rough skies without blinking, but then the occasional air pocket will cause the plane to suddenly drop with a sickening wrench of the stomach.
The fact is, despite how it may feel, often the airplane is never moving more than a few feet in any one direction; our perception of the movement is just exacerbated.
The truth is, most modern jets are designed to handle much more stress than what you’re likely to feel and some even fly into 200mph hurricane winds and meander for hours taking measurements.
When you get on a plane, seldom do you appreciate what you are actually about to experience; flight. For centuries man has tried and failed to break the ever-present grasp of gravity. A century ago, we achieved that goal and have been making leaps and bounds of progress ever since. A look at the first airplane designs from the late 1800s will register no familiarity with the 737 you’re boarding today. With planes that have ranges up to 10,000mi, it's amazing to think that it all started with a flight that lasted less than 10 seconds and didn’t even traverse the wingspan of your average airliner.
These miraculous feats of engineering actually suck enough air through them to fill the Goodyear blimp in less than 10 seconds. Since horsepower is a measure of force multiplied by distance and thrust is a static number (in which no movement occurs for the measurement thereof) it is difficult to apply a horsepower rating to jet engines; if we take an overly simplified calculation of one horsepower (33,000ft/lbs per min. divided by 5,280’ [feet in one mile] our answer of 6.25 is multiplied by 60 minutes in one hour. This means at 375mph, 1lb of thrust is equivalent to 1hp. By this flawed but necessary logic, the new 747 could be said to generate 266,000hp with all four engines at takeoff power.
Whether you’re aware or not, there’s a whole world going on around you, with millions of others doing the same thing you are – living. It may not readily be apparent, but at any given moment, there is the population of a decent-sized city in the skies at all times.
Flighttracker.com will tell you what’s in the sky at any given time, and it’s not uncommon to see over 6,000 commercial flights in the sky at once. Average that out with 150 people per flight and there would be an estimated 900,000 people in the air.
The world-wide 747 fleet has logged more than 48 million miles (that’s over 100,000 round trips to the moon), and there are more than two million domestic passengers boarding over 30,000 flights daily.
Hypoxia. The word sounds like a 3rd world epidemic but it’s actually something 1st world citizens are far more likely to experience. Why? Hypoxia is simply a deficiency of oxygen reaching body tissues like the brain. When you increase your altitude, it’s harder for your body to process the thinner oxygen effectively. 15,000 feet is about our maximum tolerance of altitude. For this reason, airlines typically run a cabin altitude of 8,000 feet. This means your body feels like it’s at that altitude, even when you’re six miles high. Despite the airline’s effort to keep you comfortable, many people may be overly sensitive to the lower pressures and suffer mild forms of hypoxia every time they fly. Although it can be fatal in extremes, it’s usually controlled enough to have only minute effects on the average traveler.
We take a lot for granted and you’re probably a whole lot more trusting than you may think. You blindly cruise through that green light trusting that no one will run the red just as easily and you get on that airplane trusting that it has enough fuel to make it to its destination; usually it does. In fact, the FAA regulates the amount of fuel that must be on board for any given flight and mandates it carry a reserve capacity, just in case. This reserve capacity is usually just enough to land at an alternate field if there is a problem at the destination airport and not much longer. Topping off an airliner’s fuel tanks would just add unnecessary weight and increase operating costs that would eventually get passed on to you anyway.
We associate the lavatory with high concentrations of bacteria and germs; and rightfully so, it’s where the dirty business goes down. But a place far scarier than the restroom is closer to you than you think; in fact, you’re literally sitting right in the middle of it.
Turns out, the passenger seating area is, by far, the most unsanitary place on a passenger airline.
A 2015 study on the subject found over 2,000 colony-forming units of germs and bacteria on your tray table – compare that to less than 270 CFU on the flush button. If you didn’t know, now you know.
Today is the day of high efficiency and minimal waste. Call this progressivism of eco-friendly if you like, it’s really just a matter of trying to maximize razor-thin profit margins by splitting hairs. And this hair-splitting is taken to the extreme; Boeing actually researched the cost-benefit of painted planes vs polished planes as paint can add hundreds of pounds to a plane despite the fact that the weight penalty of paint is only equivalent to a small handful of passengers. American Airlines discovered years ago that something so minuscule as removing one olive per salad realized a $40,000/year savings. Hong Kong carrier Cathay is reducing seat width by one inch to squeeze an extra passenger in each row of their 777s; this move is projected to add $90 million to the books annually.
Sources: travelandleisure.com, quora.com, businessinsider.com, rd.com, fastcompany.com, sciencealert.com, ge.com, flightcentre.com, express.co.uk.