6 Freaky Facts About Flying That Airlines Don’t Tell You

Illustrated By Norah Stone.
This story was originally published on May 25, 2016.
As a former airline industry employee, I've seen and heard a lot of things that the general flying public, for better or worse, is in the dark about.
You may be sitting in the airport waiting to board and see airline employees donning reflective vests and looking harried, while communicating via walkie-talkie, but have no clue what it means (including whether something might be wrong with your plane). You might order a cup of coffee or tea on your flight, ignorant to the fact that it could be crawling with bacteria. You might even be sitting near a dead person (or above one — cadavers are common cargo), and never even know it.
Ahead, six freaky things airlines don’t tell passengers that might surprise you.
1. Don't consume coffee, tea, or prepared food on board.
The water sourced for in-flight hot beverages comes from tanks that are hard to clean and have a higher likelihood of bacteria and other contaminants. In other words, steer clear of anything that requires tap water — coffee, tea, etc. — and drink only bottled water. Also, don't eat the food on board unless it comes in a sealed bag from a specific brand. LSG Sky Chefs, one of the largest contractors providing meals to airlines, frequently gets slapped with health violations, and the conditions under which it prepares food are often less than savory. (Of course, that doesn’t go for all airlines, as some international carriers, like Emirates and Singapore, are known for their excellent food.)
2. Airlines retire numbers that are bad luck.
The majority of airline employees, especially pilots, are the most level-headed, pragmatic people you’ll ever meet. But they also tend to be incredibly superstitious about certain things. That’s probably why flight numbers go into retirement once they’re associated with a negative incident. Among the grounded numbers of routes past are American Airlines flight 77, which crashed on 9/11; Malaysian Airlines 370, which disappeared over the China Sea last year; and Pan Am flight 103, which came down en route from Frankfurt to Detroit, in an incident now known simply as Lockerbie, the village where the plane crashed following an explosion.
Illustrated By Norah Stone.
3. Think twice before using the seat-back tray.
That seat-back tray you eagerly lower for beverage or snack service or to rest your laptop on may come with some unwanted surprises. Like, say, fecal matter. Passengers often use the trays as their own private diaper changing tables, and sadly, they are cleaned far less than you'd be comforted to know. Next time you fly, bring antibacterial wipes for the seat-back tray before you touch it, let alone eat off of it.
4. No one seat is safer than any other.
There’s an ongoing debate about where to sit on a plane to increase your odds of surviving a plane crash. Analyses have even shown that, on average, more people have survived sitting toward the back of the plane behind the wing than in the front. But if you ask any industry professional, they’ll tell you something different. If the plane is nose-diving from 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, sorry, but you’re out of luck no matter where you sit. If the mid or back sections of the plane are ground zero for impact, sitting in the back actually puts you in harm’s way more than say, if you’re in the cockpit. Airplane crashes are incredibly rare, but your chances of survival will depend on the circumstances of the emergency.
Illustrated By Norah Stone.
5. Virtually every plane has something wrong with it.
Much like how you may know that your car is due for an oil change but make a calculated decision to wait until next week to deal with it, airplanes have routine scheduled maintenance, and certain problems might not be dealt with until that time. The formula that determines whether and when a problem is addressed takes into account both severity and risk, whether there are backup systems for that functionality, and when the plane is scheduled for maintenance (or to land at an airport where the airline has the capacity, parts, and people to fix it). But don’t worry: If it’s a big enough problem that it poses a real threat to safety, they will take the aircraft out of service for repairs.
6. Gross things happen on planes all the time.
Life happens — and for some reason, it seems to happen more intensely on airplanes. Blame it on the altitude, but people tend to do crazy things when they’re flying. They have sex (including often with themselves); they drink cheap chardonnay on a 6 a.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale and barf all over the place (in fact, seats are the most swapped-out equipment on planes). And people bite the dust mid-flight more often than you might think (usually it’s older people with heart conditions). When someone dies in-flight, a plane will often divert to the nearest city, but sometimes, people slip away so quietly that no one notices until they don't get up from their seats upon landing. Spooky.

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