English Corner

Certain myths about travelling by air persist and cause discomfort here and there. Picture: Gerrie van der Walt

Popular misconceptions about air travel

Christian Haas

Does a plane crash inevitably mean the death of the passengers? Does tomato juice taste different on a plane compared to on the ground? We debunk eleven myths, some of which have persisted for generations. Surprisingly, a few of these myths may actually hold some truth!

Urban legends are typically recognized as stories and assertions that, despite their lack of truth, persist for extended periods, sometimes spanning decades. For example, the claim that Einstein was a bad maths student has long been disproved, yet, it continues to be recounted numerous times. Similarly, myths like the belief that the birthrate experienced a surge (chuckle, chuckle) supposedly shot up after the great power blackout in New York in 1965; or the assumption that Zanzibar was once exchanged for Heligoland. There are also persistent rumours surrounding air travel.

Two pilots, two different dishes?

This misconception extends to the widely held belief that the pilot and co-pilot should avoid consuming the same meal. The rationale behind this notion is often thought to prevent both individuals from becoming incapacitated in the event of food, spoilage or poisoning, that’s compromising the aircraft safety. However, this myth is incorrect. What holds true, instead, is that they are not allowed to eatsimultaneously, but are required to consume the meals one after the other. So while one person is eating, their colleague is monitoring the instruments and fittings. Then they switch. In the event of illness, the aircraft is landed immediately to avoid taking any unnecessary risks. Furthermore, despite frequent rumors, there are no specialized menus for pilots; they have access to the same dining options as (Business or First Class) passengers.

Humans - a panicky creature?

Speaking of panic, the notion that passengers would succumb to absolute panic during an aircraft crash—screaming wildly, abandoning all logical thought, and acting uncontrollably—falls squarely into the realm of myth. Experience has shown that quite the opposite is typically true. A good example of this was US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, whose spectacular ditching in the Hudson River in New York City caused a worldwide sensation. In the experience of Ben Sherwood, one of the passengers who witnessed the highly dangerous manoeuvre personally, people were rather calm despite the panic-worthy situation. «People were scared», says Sherwood, «but they were very calm and waited for instructions. Some took charge, the others sorted themselves out and everyone got out of the aircraft safely in the end.»

The myth of the open emergency exit

While such scenarios are frequently depicted in disaster films, particularly those from the 1970s, to heighten tension and evoke fear among viewers, the reality is quite different: the emergency exit door cannot be opened during flight, whether accidentally or intentionally. The door is engineered to open inward first, then outward, thereby preventing any unauthorized access while airborne.

The air pressure inside and outside the cabin effectively prevent the door from opening inward. In fact, the higher the aircraft climbs, the tighter it closes. Only when the aircraft has landed safely is this safety catch unlocked. So, there is no need to panic about sudden drafts above the clouds.

Does every crash really mean death?

This notion is promptly debunked by the next misconception, namely that every crash will be fatal for every passenger. This is simply untrue; according to a study by the US Federal Transportation Safety Administration, more than 95 per cent of passengers survive air accidents. The scientists arrived at this figure after analysing incidents over the past 20 years. Coupled with the fact that flying is the safest of all modes of transport, experts calculated the probability of not surviving the next flight to be 1 in 29 million. Statistically speaking, you could fly every day for the next 80,000 years without any problems and enjoy plenty of tomato juice.

Does tomato juice really taste different above the clouds?

Speaking of tomato juice, for once, the assumption that has been circulating for decades is true: Tomato juice does taste different in the air than on the ground. It is therefore ordered by the litre on planes. The Fraunhofer Institute explains why this is the case: "The low pressure in the aircraft increases the odour and taste threshold. This means that fruity odours and cooling taste sensations come to the fore." This turns the otherwise rather bland tomato juice on the plane into a culinary experience. Another explanation for this phenomenon could be that since many flights off a small snacks, tomato juice is popular because it is nutritious and filling.

One nip of alcohol on the plane equals three on the ground

Of course, people also order a lot of drinks with a significantly higher alcohol content - especially on night and/or long-haul flights, as many people want to tame their fear of flying. The formula circulates in certain circles: One drink on a plane has the same effect as three identical drinks on the ground. While it’s possible that passengers may feel drunk more quickly at higher altitudes due to less oxygen reaching the brain, the equation is definitely exaggerated. After all, the blood alcohol level is still responsible for the extent of intoxication, and this is not influenced by differences in altitude.

Do switched-on mobile phones really cause serious interference?

Now there is another myth that awaits debunking: Mobile phones can have a serious impact on navigation systems in the cockpit. So far, there is no credible evidence that they actually impair the functioning of these systems. The fact is that aeroplanes are particularly shielded against foreign radio signals.

However, the ban exists due to the pilots' headphones. In the absence of flight mode, smartphones emit a sound that can sometimes be picked up by aircraft communication systems, leading to interference that may disrupt or obscure important radio messages.

There is no row 13 in the aircraft

And here's another legend, which is - at least partially - true: the superstition factor. Interestingly, some airlines do indeed cater to it. For example, there is 13th row of seats on Lufthansa aircraft. And there never has been, largely due to the great influence of the Americans in the early days of Germany's largest airline. And this in turn is probably because the Americans themselves are very superstitious. At Lufthansa - and this also applies to Swiss - the 13th row is therefore numbered 14, and at other airlines the same applies to 17, because this number is considered unlucky in Italy and Brazil.

Are tickets the same price regardless of the day of the week?

Anyone who has ever organised a flight knows that ticket prices for the same flight can fluctuate considerably. Most people assume that it simply depends on how full the flight is. In other words, if only a few seats are booked until shortly before take-off, it will be cheaper. But this is only part of the truth, as there are definitely overriding trends in ticket prices. For example, there are significant differences depending on the day of the week you book or the day of the week the flight are scheduled. The globally active company Expedia announced in a study from 2023 that it is best to book your departure on a Friday, when prices are up to 17 (!) per cent below the average. Return flights from all regions are particularly cheap on Mondays. The best time to book is in the afternoon or evening - and especially on Sundays. This is when demand from business travellers is lower, and the airlines sometimes mark up their prices a little for holidaymakers. In addition, bookings on Wednesdays or Thursdays can be cheaper than on days with a high number of bookings, such as Mondays or Tuesdays.

Are toilets really emptied above the clouds?

Older people may remember that train toilets used to be emptied by opening a flap on open railway lines - and may mistakenly conclude something similar for air travel. But there is absolutely nothing to this unsavoury assertion. The toilets in aeroplanes work by means of a vacuum that sucks everything into an onboard tank, which is emptied after each flight. What is released into the air is the water from the washbasins. It is atomised very finely so that no lumps of ice can form that could endanger people on the ground.

The myth surrounding the legendary Mile High Club

Some passengers may have other intensions for the use of the lavatory—a sexual one. Which brings us to the Mile-High Club. It is said that you only become a member once you have had sex with a partner on board an aircraft in flight (who then also becomes a member of the MHC). Ideally, the flight altitude above the ground for this adventure should be at least one nautical mile, i.e. 1852 metres. Hence the name Mile High Club. The idea of engaging in intimacy above the clouds has captured the imagination for generations, fueling fantasies about this exclusive club for airborne adventurers.

The fact is, there is no such club. There never has been. There is neither a clubhouse, nor a board, nor a website. It's all fiction and testosterone- and oestrogen-fuelled posturing. Incidentally, there is not a single documented case of (complaints about) sexual behaviour above the clouds at Lufthansa or Swiss. Of course, this does not mean that a quickie does not take place in the on-board toilet from time to time. That may very well happen - but very, very rarely and not in connection with MHC membership. However, the sex rate on smaller (private) aeroplanes is likely to be much higher. Some companies even offer flights in specially equipped aircraft, which not only promise more discretion and fewer disturbances, but also more acrobatic opportunities thanks to generous reclining areas.