Everything You’ve Always Wondered About Flying, Answered

From the dangers of turbulence to the importance of “airplane mode,” here are the answers to everything you’ve been wondering about flying.

Everything You’ve Always Wondered About Flying, Answered

No, airlines don’t empty plane bathrooms in the air.

Photo by March Cattle/Shutterstock

Long flights offer plenty of time for your mind to wander and settle on those burning—and often frankly worrying—aviation questions. Has this plane got enough fuel to get us there? Will my phone scramble the pilot’s computers? And why exactly IS there a hole in my window?

If you’re the anxious or the curious type, here are some answers to those airline questions and many more.

Why do window shades have to be open for takeoff and landing?

Many airlines outside North America require this as a safety feature intended to create full awareness of surroundings if there’s an emergency.

U.S. airlines rarely do the same, but some regional jets (the CRJ-700 and CRJ-900 models, for example) may require that seat 1A has the shade open. American Eagle implements this policy on some of its planes too. The flight attendant doesn’t have a window on the entry door so the first row’s window provides visibility in an emergency.

Those small holes are nothing to worry about.

Those small holes are nothing to worry about.

Photo by Jakub D/Shutterstock

Should I be worried about those little holes in the windows? No. Airplane windows are incredibly durable and have three separate panes. The middle one has a small “breather hole,” which is not for air-conditioning but to help equalize the pressure between the window layers as an aircraft ascends and descends.

What happens if someone dies inflight?

Airlines develop their own protocol for this situation, but some Singapore Airlines planes once had refrigerated spaces for bodies if someone passed away. Technically, no one dies inflight as no one aboard can pronounce them dead (unless a doctor is onboard).

Bodies are either left in their existing seat or placed in a set of spare chairs. Staff respectfully cover them with a blanket and leave them upright.

What happens when planes dump fuel inflight?

It’s rare for airlines to dump expensive fuel, but if a pilot needs to land sooner than expected, it may be necessary to ensure that the plane touches down at a safe weight.

Pilots lighten the load by flying around before landing or if urgent, jettisoning fuel inflight (usually only wide-body aircraft are capable).

If a plane were to land overweight, it would require a thorough inspection before flying again. Planes typically release fuel from special devices on the wings at a high enough altitude where it dissipates as mist before hitting the ground.

What happens when you flush an airplane toilet?

Vacuum toilets use strong suction (instead of gallons of water) to move contents to special tanks beneath the cabin at exceptional speed. A small amount of chemical liquid then disinfects and removes odors.

And no, airplanes don’t empty lavatory contents inflight despite popular lore; they’re emptied on the ground and pumped from the plane to a truck for proper disposal.

Why must airline seats be in an upright position for takeoff and landing?

An inch or two may not seem like much, but it can make it more difficult for the person behind you to escape in an emergency—and it makes it harder for them to brace for impact. In addition, reclined seats are not properly locked in place, so a sudden stop could cause greater inertial force and potential whiplash.

Since most accidents occur during takeoff and landing, passengers are requested to place their seats upright.

Is turbulence dangerous?

Planes are designed to encounter all kinds of weather conditions. During construction, they are put through intense stress tests to understand their limitations. One test sees the wings pulled upward to test how far they can bend in stressful conditions. Wings are very flexible.

New aircraft types are also intentionally flown into turbulent weather during manufacturer testing to study performance in rough weather (tests also cover icing and lightning strikes). Rest assured, your pilot knows what the plane can and cannot fly through when it comes to turbulence.

Pilots can eat the same meal on many flights.

Pilots can eat the same meal on many flights.

Photo by Manjik/Shutterstock

Is it true that pilots cannot eat the same meal? A pilot and a copilot will often eat different things to avoid any problems if one of them gets food poisoning. However, it’s not a hard and fast rule and airline policy differs.

Some airlines board crew meals that may be completely different from what passengers are served, and that could include either a choice of dishes or the same thing.

Why do flight attendants store their bags above passenger seats?

Some airlines require that crew store bags in designated spaces throughout the aircraft, which gives them easy access to manuals or other items needed inflight.

However, not all planes have specific closets for crew bags, which means they have to use the same space as the passengers.

The Boeing 787 Dreamline has a large space for crew to rest.

The Boeing 787 Dreamline has a large space for crew to rest.

Photo by Jordan Tan/Shutterstock

Where do crews rest on long flights? With planes flying greater distances, it’s imperative that the crew rest during long flights. Many planes come with special bunks hidden behind doors that may look like lavatories or closets.

Access is via key or special code; inside are curtained-off bunk beds with pillows and blankets. Sometimes, in planes like the Boeing B767 or the Airbus A330, they are in the ceiling or underbelly sections where crew must climb ladders or narrow, steep stairs to reach them. Crews are allotted a set number of hours for rest.

Do pilots and flight attendants have normal routes they typically fly?

Airline crew will tell you this is one of the most common questions they’re asked. Pilots and flight attendants use a bidding system based upon seniority to determine monthly schedules. The most senior crewmembers will often get preferred routes like the longest flights, most exotic destinations, or “same day turns” (flying out and back in the same day so they can sleep in their own bed each night).

Those with less seniority can submit their preferences, and route pairings are typically assigned with those in mind in order of seniority. When crewmembers say they can “hold” flights, it means they regularly get the preferred routes they bid.

What happens if you don’t switch on “airplane mode” inflight?

It’s an FAA mandate, but many pilots say they don’t notice an effect on the navigation equipment of modern planes. Computer systems are designed to be shielded from most interference.

However, they may hear an annoying noise on their radio, your cell signal is not going to work at 36,000 feet, and it could even drain your battery more quickly, so it’s best to do what you’re told.

Is it rude to ring the flight attendant call button?

It varies depending upon where you fly. Push the call button on domestic carriers outside of an emergency, and it might be met with a stern glance or even ignored altogether.

On longer flights in different parts of the world, flight attendants encourage passengers to ring the button if they need something. It all comes down to cultural norms and the expectations of passengers. Use your judgment; if the crew appear busy, try to hold off from pressing it unless it’s an emergency.

Why are passengers asked not to congregate in the aisles or galleys?

This is a post-9/11 safety measure to keep an eye on who might have access to the flight deck. You may see flight attendants block the galley with service carts when pilots enter and exit.

This practice is less common overseas and most often enforced on flights within, to, and from North America. On occasion, in some parts of the world, the flight deck door may even remain open for a short period when crew go to the bathroom or are served meals.

How much spare fuel do planes carry?

Only the necessary amount of fuel needed per flight (plus some to reach an alternate diversion airport nearby in the event of bad weather or an emergency). Extra fuel requires burning even more fuel because it makes the plane heavier.

If weather conditions indicate headwinds, pilots may request extra fuel to handle potentially longer flight times. This is all calculated prior to the flight. Dispatch and crew teams follow strict guidelines to determine the exact amount required based upon a plane’s weight, route, and potential enroute weather.

Is it true that air on cheaper flights has a lower amount of oxygen?


On some planes, a series of three rapid beeps is occasionally heard on final descent. Is that cause for alarm?

The beeps (probably only heard from the front of some planes) indicate that the autopilot was disconnected as pilots prepare for the final phase of approach and landing. Nothing to worry about.

>>Next: The Unsung Airport Employee You Need to Thank When Your Plane Leaves on Time

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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