Commercial air travel has long been a breeding ground for myths, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and plain old misunderstandings. Most of what people think they know about flying is wrong. Here are my picks for the seven most stubborn fallacies and quasi-truths.
1. Flying is expensive
Actually, when adjusted for inflation, the average cost of an airline ticket has declined about 50 percent over the past three decades. Fares have risen slightly over the past year or so, but they are still far below what they were 30 years ago. And yes, this is after factoring in all of those add-on “unbundling” fees that airlines love and passengers so despise. This is lost on many Americans, younger people especially, who don’t seem to realize that in years past only a fraction of Americans could afford to fly at all. In my parents’ generation it cost several thousand dollars in today’s money to travel to Europe. Even coast-to-coast trips were something relatively few could afford. The idea of flying as a form of mass transit, with college kids jetting home for a long weekend or to Mexico for spring break, is very new. Cockpit Confidential: ... Best Price: $1.25 Buy New $14.71 (as of 03:05 EST - Details)
2. Flying has become more dangerous
The events of the past several months, punctuated by the losses of Malaysia Airlines flights 370 and 17, have given many people the idea that flying has become less safe. In fact it’s much safer than it used to be. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980.
Globally, 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. This year will be something of a correction, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and the overall trend shouldn’t be affected. If you think the past 12 months have been bad, go back to 1985, when 27 (!) serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. Two of history’s ten deadliest disasters happened that year, within two months of each other. The 60s, 70s and 80s were an era rife with horrific crashes, bombings, airport attacks and so on. Recent events notwithstanding, large-scale disasters have become a lot less frequent.
3. Modern commercial jets are so sophisticated that they essentially fly themselves.
This is the one that really gets my pulse racing — partly because we hear it so often, and because it’s so outrageously false. A comparison between flying and medicine is maybe the best one: modern technology helps a pilot fly a plane the way it helps a surgeon perform an operation. A jetliner can no more “fly itself” than an operating room can remove a tumor or perform an organ transplant “by itself.” Cockpit automation is not flying the plane. The pilots are flying the plane through the automation. We still need to tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. There are, for example, no fewer than six different ways that I can set up an “automatic” climb or descent on the Boeing that I fly, depending on circumstances. There are periods of high workload, and periods of low workload, but you’d be surprised how busy a cockpit can become – to the point of task-saturation – with the autopilot on.
It’s true that pilots have come to rely on a somewhat different skill.. Seat-of-the-pants talents are a smaller part of the job than they were in decades past. Still, even the most routine flight is subject to countless contingencies and a tremendous amount of input from the crew. And for the record, more than 99 percent of landings, and a full 100 percent of takeoffs, are performed the “old fashioned” way – by hand, with either the captain or first officer (copilot) physically at the controls.
4. The air on planes is full of germs
Studies show that the air in a crowded cabin is less germ-laden than most other crowded spaces. Passengers and crew breathe a mixture of fresh and recirculated air. This combination, rather than using fresh air only, makes it easier to regulate temperature and helps maintain a bit of humidity. The recirculated portion is run through hospital-quality filters that capture at least 95 percent of airborne microbes, and there’s a total change-over of air every two or three minutes — far more frequently than occurs in buildings. For those who do get sick from flying, it’s probably not from what they are breathing, but from what they are touching. Lavatory door handles, contaminated trays and armrests, etc., are the germ vectors of concern, not the air. A little hand sanitizer is a better safeguard than the masks I sometimes see travelers wearing.
If passengers have a legitimate gripe, it’s about dryness. Indeed, cabin air is exceptionally dry and dehydrating. At around 12 percent humidity, it’s drier than you will find in most deserts. This is a by-product of cruising at high altitudes, where moisture content is somewhere between low and nonexistent. Humidifying a cabin would seem a simple and sensible solution, but it’s avoided for a few reasons. First, to amply humidify a jetliner would take large quantities of water, which is heavy and expensive to carry around. Humidifying systems would need to re-capture and re-circulate as much water as possible, making them expensive and complicated. They do exist: Purell 9022 Sanitizing... Buy New $12.28 (as of 08:05 EST - Details) one sells for more than $100,000 per unit, and only increases humidity by a small margin. There’s also the important issue of corrosion. Dampness and condensation leeching into the guts of an airframe can be damaging.
The Boeing 787 has the cleanest air of any commercial plane in existence, thanks to filters with an efficiency of 99.97 percent. Humidity, too, will be substantially higher. The plane’s all-composite structure is less susceptible to condensation, with a unique circulation system that pumps dry air through the lining between the cabin walls and exterior skin.
5. Pilots cut back airflow to save fuel, and tinker with oxygen levels to keep passengers docile
The rate and volume of airflow is mostly automatic. On the Boeings that I fly, the switches are set to automatic mode prior to flight, and they stay there. The strength and volume of airflow remains consistent. We adjust the settings only if there’s a malfunction, such as an overheat or some other glitch in the plumbing. (In seven years of flying 757s and 767s, this is something I have experienced only once or twice.) It’s similar on Airbus models. The airflow controls usually have three positions, labeled HI, NORM, and LO. The NORM position is standard. The HI position is used when a rapid change in cabin temperature is needed. The LO position does as the name implies. While it provides a bit of fuel savings, it isn’t used very often. At most carriers, LO is used only when the passenger count is below a certain threshold. “In any case, it’s not a big change,” says one Airbus captain. “Sitting in the cabin, it’s almost impossible to notice the difference.”
The idea that we cut back on oxygen is simply ridiculous. Oxygen levels are determined by pressurization. Crews set up the pressurization system before departure, and the rest happens pretty much automatically. We don’t mess with it unless something goes wrong. And remember, pilots are breathing the same air as everybody else on a plane. An aircraft fuselage does not contain separate compartments with different pressure values in each. The entire vessel is pressurized equally from the forward pressure bulkhead to the aft pressure bulkhead. This normally includes the cabin, cockpit, and lower-deck cargo holds. Not only that, but subjecting passengers to an oxygen deficiency – a condition known as hypoxia – would have some rather undesirable effects. Although the symptoms of hypoxia can, at first, make a person feel giddy and relaxed, they also induce confusion, nausea, and migraine-strength headaches. I remember the multi-day hypoxia headache I endured some years ago in Cuzco, Peru, an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, let alone a planeload of customers.
Pressurization, for those who don’t understand it, is what allows you to breathe normally while flying at high altitudes. Using air bled from the compressor sections of the engines, it effectively squeezes the rarefied, high-altitude air back into sea level air (or something reasonably close to it). While en route, the cabin is held at the equivalent of anywhere from around 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, depending on the aircraft type and cruising altitude. (Pressurizing all the way to sea level is unnecessary and would put undue stress on the airframe.) In other words, you’re breathing as you would in Denver or Mexico City – minus the pollution. Check Amazon for Pricing.
6. Copilots aren’t “real pilots,” they’re just apprentices.
Inevitably when there’s an airplane story in the news, reference is made to “the pilot.” Thing is, there are always at least two pilots in a jetliner cockpit — a captain and first officer — and both of these individuals are fully qualified to operate the aircraft.
The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice; he or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge, and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both are capable of flying the plane. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do — and both are part of the decision-making process.
I’m not sure if reporters have a style guide for these things, but normally this is nothing a simple “s” can’t fix: “the pilots.” Alternately you could say “the cockpit crew.” If a differentiation is needed, I’d recommend use the terms “captain” and “first officer.” Just be aware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident. In fact, while protocols are different carrier to carrier, it’s not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations, for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc.
Do I seem sensitive about this? That’s because I’m a copilot.
A copilot becomes a captain not by virtue of skill or experience, incidentally, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, but suffice it to say a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life — salary, aircraft assignment, schedule and choice of destinations — as a senior copilot than as a junior captain. Thus it’s not terribly uncommon for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.
7. Passenger Embellishment Factor (PEF)
This is my term for people’s tendency to exaggerate the sensations of flight. The altitudes, speeds and angles you perceive often aren’t close to the real thing. During turbulence, for example, many people believe that an airplane is dropping hundreds of feet at a time, when in reality, even in relatively heavy turbulence, the displacement is seldom more than 20 feet or so – the slightest twitch on the altimeter. It’s similar with angles of bank and climb. A typical turn is around 15 degrees, and a steep one might be 25. A sharp climb is about 20 degrees nose-up, and even a rapid descent is usually no more severe than five – yes, five — degrees nose-down.
I can hear your letters already: you will tell me that I’m lying, and how your flight, was definitely climbing at 45 degrees and definitely banking at 60. And you’re definitely wrong. I wish that I could take you into a cockpit and demonstrate. I’d show you what a 45-degree climb would actually look like, turning you green in the face. In a 60-degree turn, the G forces would be so strong that you’d hardly be able to lift your legs off the floor.
Reprinted with permission from Patrick Smith.