All the questions you've got about flying answered
Flying 101: experts reveal all about air travel
No matter how often we fly, the wonder of air travel never ceases to astound us. We've done all the research and asked the experts – cabin crew, pilots and airline execs – to explain everything we’ve always wanted to know about planes and to give us the inside scoop on what happens behind the scenes…
Why must planes fly so high?
Commercial planes generally travel at a lofty 35,000 feet. That’s because, the more a plane ascends, the thinner the air becomes, so an aircraft can travel faster and more cost efficiently at a greater altitude. But it isn’t a case of the higher, the better. If an aircraft travels too high (above about 42,000 feet), there is insufficient oxygen and this can cause problems with the engine.
How common are emergency landings?
The short answer is: emergency landings happen more often than you think. Heathrow alone actually averages around one per week, according to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Emergeny landings can be the result of anything from poor weather conditions to passenger illness. If one should occur, trust that you’re in safe hands and you’ll be told what you need to know.
Why do planes leave those white trails in the sky?
Those white tracks are actually called contrails – and there’s some science behind them. When a plane is in flight, its hot exhaust mixes with the surrounding atmosphere which, at high altitude, is much colder and thinner than the plane’s emissions. This causes the water vapour in the exhaust to freeze, leaving icy streaks across the sky.
Is cabin air really bad for your health?
The quality of cabin air has been a point of hot dispute for some time. Though most airlines insist there are no risks associated with breathing cabin air, some studies, including safety reports from the CAA, suggest otherwise. The air you breathe on-board contains “bleed air”, which is taken from a turbine engine, compressed and conditioned, and pumped into the cabin. Some argue that it can become contaminated with chemicals which contribute to a range of health issues. The debate continues.
Why do your feet swell during a flight?
If you’ve spent any more than a couple of hours on a flight, you may well have noticed that your feet, ankles and legs have expanded considerably. It’s mainly just because you’ve been sitting still for too long, allowing for a build-up of fluid. The change in air pressure and some likely dehydration adds to the reaction. Make sure you walk around (when the seat belt sign is off, of course) and drink plenty of water. We've got more tips for staying healthy when you travel here.
Do pilots ever fall asleep on the job?
Yes, they do. But there's no need to panic. It’s known as "controlled" or "in-seat" rest, according to SkyBrary, and it means that one pilot will snooze (usually for no longer than about 45 minutes), while their co-pilot takes full responsibility of the controls. The resting period will be agreed in advance (during times of low activity), and the co-pilot will be properly briefed and the rest of the crew should be informed.
How much oxygen is in the oxygen masks on board?
Are budget airlines less safe?
What happens to lost luggage?
It’s the ultimate travel disaster – you arrive at your destination airport to find your bag was lost in transit and is nowhere to be seen. Most lost luggage is reunited with its owner within a few days – and there will usually be some monetary compensation if the bag has well and truly vanished. But what happens if that luggage is never claimed? There’s such thing as a “lost luggage auction”, which hawks the abandoned goods to eager punters ready for a bargain.
Why do passengers enter & exit planes on the left?
There are a couple of potential reasons for this. Firstly the luggage hold and the fuel tank are (mostly) on the right-hand side, so keeping passenger activity to the left reduces the risk of injury. But some believe this pattern is actually linked to nautical history. A ship’s port would always be on the left and so it's thought that aircraft designers followed this same format.
If a baby is born in-flight, what determines their nationality?
This has only happened on a few occasions, and it’s a real grey area. The newborn's citizenship depends on several factors. In some parts, it pertains to the airspace occupied when the baby was born – the States, for example, recognise any baby born on US “soil”, including air space, as an American citizen. According to the UN, though, a baby born in transit should become a citizen of the country that the airline is registered to. In other cases, the child may adopt their parents’ nationality.
How does a plane actually stay up?
Founder of Stratajet and former commercial pilot Jonny Nicol says planes stay up by creating lift with their wings. "What causes lift is introducing a shape [the plane] into the airflow, this curves the streamlines and introduces pressure changes. The lower pressure on the upper surface [of the wings] and higher pressure on the lower surface creates lift.”
Why do window blinds need to be up for take-off & landing?
These are “the most critical phases of a flight”, according to flight attendant and Whistlestops.co.uk founder Leandi. “Passengers can often see more of what’s happening outside the aircraft than the crew can, and they can (and have) alerted us to potential external dangers such as ice on the wing or smoke from the engine. After an emergency landing, it’s also essential that people outside the plane can see and indicate to people inside and vice versa."
Why do seats have to be upright for take-off & landing?
“Again, from a safety perspective, this is for a 'just in case' emergency scenario,” says Leandi. “If the seat’s reclined, it's harder for you to get up and out of your seat, and that extra second per person can be a matter of life or death. Also bear in mind that a reclined seat, especially in economy class, impacts on the space the person behind you has. If you make it awkward for them to get out by reclining your seat, you’re potentially risking their life in an emergency landing situation."
Why do the lights go out just before take-off?
“The lights should always go out before take-off or landing if it’s dark outside. The cabin needs to reflect the exterior environment so your eyes don’t need to adjust in an emergency situation,” says Mandy Smith, former Virgin Atlantic air hostess and author of Cabin Fever, a behind-the-scenes account of being an air hostess.
What are the beeps in the cabin for?
“The double ding as we call it,” says Mandy, “means that the pilot has had the checks in from the cabin manager and the go ahead for take-off.” Pete Evans, COO of Surf Air and former head of operations at Virgin Atlantic, says there are many different sounds and various airlines use them differently. "They're like a set of codes for passing instructions between crew. The most noticeable ones happen during the climb after take-off, telling the crew that it's safe for them to leave their seats."
Why does it sound like the engine cuts out after take off?
“Airlines and airports like to be ‘friendly neighbours’,” says Pete of Surf Air. “Power is reduced as soon as it can be to reduce noise. An aircraft needs a lot of power from the engines to get off the ground but once airborne the amount of power needed can be reduced – the climb to cruising altitude will normally be much less steep than take-off.”
What happens if a mobile or tablet is left on during take-off?
Dan Air, flight attendant and Confessions of a Trolley Dolly blogger, says the official line is that it can interfere with aircraft equipment. "But if I’m honest," he says, "nothing would really happen. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I often forget to switch my phone off, and except drain my battery, little else happens. However, if 400 people all have their phones on, problems could occur. Plus, if you can’t survive without it for a few hours then you really need to get out more!"
Can someone open the door mid-flight?
“Most aircraft doors are what we call ‘plug’ doors,” explains Mandy of Cabin Fever, “which means that the door is larger than the hole we walk through, making it impossible to open mid-flight because of pressures within the cabin.” Pete from Surf Air added: "It would take super-human strength to open a door on a fast-moving aircraft at altitude. The doors usually open out and forward so if anyone attempts to open them the fast-moving air outside would push it back into its closed position."
Is it possible for a plane’s engine to stall in flight?
“Engine failures are very rare,” says Jonny Nicol of Stratajet. Reassuring us that if it does happen it’s not a major cause for concern: “Part of the assessment of aircraft includes its performance with one engine, and even if you lose all engines an experienced pilot will still be able to get you down safely. I once landed an aircraft in Santorini after both engines cut out by gliding it down onto the tarmac through a thunderstorm.”
What happens if a plane gets struck by lightning?
“Typically, a bolt will hit an extremity, such as a wing tip or the nose, and the current will travel through the aeroplane’s metal shell before leaving from another point, the tail, for example,” explains Jonny. “Once in a while there’s superficial exterior damage or minor injury to the plane’s electrical systems, but a strike typically leaves little or no evidence. In fact, you might not even notice it."
What exactly is turbulence?
“Turbulence can come from jet streams (strong wind), wake turbulence (another plane passing by), cloud cover and stormy skies,” explains Leandi. Mandy, Cabin Fever author, describes it as an “unpredictable creature" with air pockets often being completely undetectable. “I’ve had many incidents where the aircraft drops suddenly,” she says. "I've been injured in turbulence several times during my career and even now I never feel comfortable as a passenger without my seatbelt on."
Can turbulence cause a plane to crash?
It's highly unlikely to but "never say never", says Pete. "The reality is an aircraft is designed and tested to go way beyond what we normally expect from turbulence, even severe turbulence." He points out that turbulence often feels far worse than it is. "A modest movement of, say, 10 feet can feel like a huge jolt. It would have to be really exceptional to cause the aircraft structure to fail," he says.
Why does the seatbelt stay on even when there is no turbulence?
“The seatbelt sign is your captain’s way of communicating with you,” says Leandi of Whistlestops.co.uk. “Their primary concern is passenger safety so if the captain sees turbulence coming the seatbelt sign will be switched on as a warning to you and the crew to prepare themselves. Of course, we do our best to avoid the bumpy air so if the sign is on but you don’t have any turbulence, then your captain did a great job of deviating around the weather. Or he or she forgot to switch it off."
How can I stop being an anxious flyer?
According to psychotherapist and coach Rob Stewart nervous flyers shouldn’t try to rationalise their fears. “You'll end up playing cognitive tennis and going back and forth between anxious thoughts and rational thoughts, but all the while becoming more introspective and more anxious,” he says. Rob recommends a strategy called “attentional focus”. “Attentional focus acknowledges uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, but then redirects our attention to something more helpful: a conversation with someone, a book, magazine or film." We've got more tips for getting over your fear of flying here.
Do airline crew ever get scared?
“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t," says Dan Air. "However, in my 12 years of flying I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been scared, and I use that word loosely. We have a job to do on board and are professionals, so it’s not very often you’ll see us crack." Leandi agrees: "We’re scared of a lot of things but flying isn't one of them... The thing that scares me most on board is aggressive or violent passenger behaviour."
How close do you really get to other planes in the air?
“They can be as close as 500 feet,” according to Pete at Surf Air. Jonny of Stratajet says there are a lot of regulations that ensure planes are never dangerously close. He adds: "Private jets generally fly at a higher altitude than commercial aircraft (usually around 41,000 feet compared to 36,000 feet). This allows for a more direct route as it’s out of the more congested area of the sky and the flight is less likely to be affected by adverse weather conditions.”
Where does the crew sleep on long-haul flights?
“We have our secret little area called the crew rest," reveals Dan Air. "Depending on the aircraft this can be found in the tail, in the belly or sometimes in the ceiling of aircraft. They’re pretty confined so not the best if you’re claustrophobic. But they do offer a welcome break from passengers. Now what goes on in the crew rest area is a whole other story, but let’s just say if those bunks could talk, it would be a best seller!”
How do you cook the meals on a flight?
“With the exception of a few 5-star international airlines, we don’t actually cook on board,” says Leandi. “The meals are prepared a couple of days in advance and packaged. That’s why if you have a special dietary requirement, we ask that you tell us about it 48 hours in advance. Then when we get on board, we just pop the meals in the oven and heat them for 30 minutes before serving them to you on the meal trays.”
Why does food taste different in the air?
“Well that’s probably because aeroplane food is pretty tasteless anyway, even the good stuff up in first,” admits Dan Air. “Scientifically speaking however, it’s all down to aircraft pressure. Combine this with the dry cabin air and your taste buds basically go numb.”
Do flight attendants eat the same food as passengers? If so, any tips for making it taste better?
“Yes, we do eat the same food most of the time,” says Leandi. “Crew all have their own tricks: some carry miniatures of Tabasco sauce and other condiments. I personally carry a tin of tuna or an avocado with me to make an otherwise plain salad more substantial and appetising. Remember that bread and fizzy drinks can make you feel bloated, especially on board, so do as we do and avoid!”
Why does alcohol affect you more on a flight?
“During a flight your body gets incredibly dehydrated,” says Dan Air. “On average during a 10-hour flight it will lose at least two litres of water. Add to that the dehydrating effect of alcohol and if you keep drinking during a flight, you can expect one mother of a hangover the next day!”
Why do I sob more at sad movies on a plane?
“If you find you're an anxious flyer, your threat response part of your brain, the amygdala, will be in a state of activation,” says psychotherapist Rob Stewart. “This controls not only your fight and flight response (no pun intended!) but the same region of the brain for other emotions. So, you become more prone to other emotional states when you’re feeling uncomfortable. Having said that, maybe The Notebook is just that much more real at 30,000ft!”
What's the secret to getting an upgrade?
“Be polite! You will get the moon on a stick from many crew members if you're nice to us," says Dan Air. "Ask us how our day is going or bring us sweets or goodies (bribery is never frowned upon), and we will bend over backwards to help you. Sadly though the days of free upgrades are becoming rarer as airline bosses clamp down on such behaviour. Unless you’re paying the big bucks to be there in the first place then airlines don’t want to know."
What if there's not a doctor on board?
“We just get on with our job," says Dan Air. "Believe it or not we don’t actually need a doctor. Our aviation first aid training is so good that on occasions doctors can be more of a hindrance as our equipment is often very different to what you'd find in hospitals. We on the other hand are fully trained in it. That’s not to say we don’t all breathe a huge sigh of relief if there is a medical emergency and a doctor, nurse or paramedic steps forward.”
What is the longest a plane can go without stopping?
“When Qantas launches Perth-London that will be 17.5-18 hours and it won’t be long before we could see 24-hour flights as aircraft engines become even more fuel efficient,” says Pete Evans of Surf Air. United Airlines also recently announced the launch of the longest commercial flight between Los Angeles and Singapore, which will take 18 hours.
What does 'doors to manual' mean?
It's a basic protocol after landing, Mandy explains, where the crew move doors into the manual position. "We then swap from the left-hand side to check our colleagues's doors on the right-hand side are also in manual then give a thumbs-up to the manager. If the doors are in automatic when opened by the ground staff the slide would inflate, causing injury as they open the doors."
How much time is there between flights for cleaning?
Many short-haul and domestic flights only have around 30 minutes of ground time, according to Leandi. “That's crazy when you think that means passenger disembarkation, cleaning, re-catering, security checks and passenger boarding for the next departure. Larger aircraft, especially on long-haul flights, will have closer to 90 minutes, which is still impressive given what needs to be done in that time. There’s very little margin for error and delays can have a big impact,” she says.
Can a plane really fly and land itself?
“Absolutely,” says Pete. “An entire flight could be operated by auto-pilot, but pilots usually perform manual take-offs and landings. An aircraft can be landed automatically all the way to a complete stop on the runway. In the UK, the first autonomous airliner is being tested so in the future we could see pilot-less airliners.” But Jonny notes: “Autopilot won’t replace a pilot in commercial aviation because it can’t problem solve in an emergency. For that you need a well-trained pilot."
What are those tiny holes in the windows for?
Aircraft windows are made in layers, Pete explains: "a glass window on the outside, an air gap, another glass window in the middle (with a little hole) and another layer usually made of plastic, which stops passengers scratching windows. The hole is an important safety feature which allows the cabin pressure to be consistent all the way to the outer window. If the outside window failed the middle window would still be sufficient enough to maintain the cabin pressure, even with the tiny hole."
If there's an empty seat after the doors have closed, can you just get up and take it?
It's acceptable to take a spare seat in your respective cabin, says Mandy, but warns: "If you paid for economy then don't move yourself into an Upper Class or Premium cabin. If there's a family travelling with children on their knee, I'd expect people to allow them to take a seat before they laid down and bagged themselves four seats each.” Oh, and it's polite to ask before you move.
Do extremely tall people get extra-legroom seats for free?
“No, but your best bet is to arrive at the airport early," says Leandi. "Bulkhead and emergency exit seats are best for legroom, but aren't usually available for online check-in. Requesting them at the airport is the best way to secure them. If you have to wait until you’re on board, then ask us for help. We genuinely want you to be comfortable, and we’ll do whatever we can to help you."