Airline myths and legends

by James Wysong on February 28, 2006

Have you ever heard an airplane story that has been passed down from year to year, only to realize when you hear it a second time that it has changed in some way? Who starts these stories? Are they true?

I have been in the airline business for many years and I hear the same stories over and over. I can’t tell you positively if they are true or false, but I can give you some opinions on their probability. Take a look at these myths and legends, for instance.

Legend. An extremely large female passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight finds herself sealed to the toilet after she flushes it. It takes three mechanics on the ground to free her.

Reality check. False. Yes, airplane toilets have very powerful suction, but when the seat is down (as I assume it would be when she sat down), there is a small gap between the seat and the toilet that prevents an airtight seal from forming. I once put this story to the test by creating an airtight seal, then flushing the toilet. Yes, there was a lot of force, but after the flush cycle the pressure was released, so our robust passenger would be free to go.

Addendum. I once tried stringing a line of toilet paper from the back lavatory to the front of the airplane, then flushing the toilet. Sure enough, the string of toilet paper got sucked out in one piece. (No, I guess I didn’t have anything better to do with my time.)

Myth. The “Mile High Club” is so enticing because the sexual climax is 10 times more intense on an airplane due to the altitude and the cabin pressure.

Reality check. False. It’s just the excitement of doing it in a bizarre place and maybe getting caught – or so I am told. With the deplorable state of most airplane lavatories these days, I am barely able to raise a smile much less anything else. Or is that just age talking?

Legend. A white passenger on a British Airways flight from Johannesburg objects to being seated next to a black man and asks for another seat. The flight attendant says she’ll see what she can do. She returns to say there is a seat available in first class and that the captain has approved an upgrade because he feels that no one should have to sit next to such an offensive person. The flight attendant then turns to the black man and invites him to the first class seat, to the cheers and applause of other passengers.

Reality check. I don’t know if this is true, but I will tell you that I have upgraded passengers sitting next to obnoxious neighbors quite a few times.

Myth. You are more likely to get sick when flying because the airplane’s circulation system spreads viruses.

Reality check. Actually, airplane air is quite healthy because it is run through HEPA air filters, which can catch up to 99.9% of small bacteria and viruses – even SARS and the bird flu virus. The real culprit is more likely to be that guy in the next seat who sneezed on you.

Legend. A Pan Am flight attendant working in first class has to deny a meal choice to a celebrity passenger. Indignant and upset, the celebrity launches into a temper tantrum. “Do you know who I am?” the passenger repeatedly exclaims. The flight attendant quickly gets on the passenger address system and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a passenger who does not know who he is. If anyone can help us with this information it would be greatly appreciated.”

Reality check. I have heard this one told with varying details from many people in the airline community. It’s a great put-down, and maybe it happened, but probably in a scaled-down manner.

Myth. If a bird flies into a jet engine during takeoff and the engine quits, the airplane will crash.

Reality check. Large commercial jets are designed so that if any one engine stops generating thrust, the airplane will have enough power from the remaining engine(s) to safely complete the flight. However, because many birds travel in flocks, there is always the possibility that birds will get sucked into more than one engine.

Legend. A German pilot vents his frustration to air traffic control one day while in a holding pattern. “I work for a German airline, flying from two points in Germany, and have all German passengers, so why must I always speak in English when I’m flying?” he complains. An English accent from another airplane in the holding pattern responds, “Because, my dear chap, we won the bloody war.”

Reality check. It could have happened, but it sounds like a case of “I wish I’d said that.”

Myth. The “passenger crash position” is not the safest position to be in during impact. In fact, it is designed to extinguish life so airlines can avoid costly paraplegic lawsuit settlements. Proof? Just look at the flight attendants’ crash position, which is different from the passenger position.

Reality check. I have never heard anything more absurd. Well, I have, but this is pretty far up the list. Do you really give airlines credit for being that smart? They can’t even board an airplane correctly. True, the passenger position is not the safest position, but it is safe and easy to understand. The reason flight attendants have a different impact position is usually because they are facing in the opposite direction from the passengers.

Legend. An Indian man rings his call bell but gets no response, so he keeps ringing it. A female flight attendant eventually responds, but by that time the man is quite irate. “I have been fingering your button for 10 minutes and still you are not coming,” he yells. She replies, “Sugar, you just have to put a bit more feeling into it.”

Reality check. Good joke? Yes. Likely to have happened? No.

Myth. Frozen runoff from airplane lavatories kills five people a year on average.

Reality check. False. The sound you hear when you flush the toilet is not the jettison of waste into the atmosphere; it is suction taking the waste to the holding tanks. If it were sucked out into the air, I would have a present for the White House every time I flew over. I did hear of one woman who was found dead in Yorkshire, England. She’s believed to have been pierced by a shaft of frozen urine that had fallen from a leak in an airplane lavatory. Not to be disrespectful, but I guess she was genuinely … pissed off.

Have you heard any airplane myths or urban legends? I would love to hear about them, so send them to me. Let’s compile a list and lay these airborne myths to rest.

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