Correcting Common Misconceptions About Air Travel

Read Patrick Smith's Ask The Pilot column "You wouldn't believe how long my flight was!"

The claims airline passengers make about flights are often embellished. During turbulence, for example, passengers may think a plane is dropping hundreds of feet, when it's never typically more than 20. Airline pilot Patrick Smith, writes the Ask The Pilot column for Salon.com. He sets the record straight on common air travel myths.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The theory of economy class syndrome has been debunked. In this month's edition of the journal Chest, that's the American College of Chest Physicians journal. In that - in Chest, the American College of Chest Physicians say it's not true that people flying economy class have a greater chance of getting a blood clot than those in first class. As it turns out, that's a myth. Airline pilot Patrick Smith says there are many myths about flying. In his Ask the Pilot column for salon.com, Smith tries to set things straight. Pilots, flight attendants, what myths do you hear on board and in the terminal? And passengers, what's your best tall tale about flying?

Ask the pilot what he thinks. 800-989-8255 is our number, and our email is talk@nprg.org, or join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Patrick Smith joins us from member station WBUR. Good to have you with us.

PATRICK SMITH: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So what would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about flying?

SMITH: Well, there are so many myths, fallacies, misunderstandings, whatever you want to call it. One thing, for example, is passengers have a terrible habit of exaggerating the sensations of flight. This is something I wrote about recently in one of my columns on salon.com. Bank angles, the amount of altitude loss during turbulence, for example. I mean, a plane, a commercial airplane will rarely bank, that is to say, turn beyond about 25 or 30 degrees of wing angle.

But you hear passengers all the time talking about how their plane banked 90 degrees and was climbing at 45 degrees and figure, 20, 25 degrees of bank, maybe 20 degrees of nose-up climb at the most, five - at the most, 10 degrees of nose-down pitch. Those are common numbers, and I can hear people now saying, no, no, no, I know that my plane was banking at this angle, climbing at this angle, dropping in turbulence, you know, this many hundreds of feet. And I wish I could take you into a cockpit and show you on the instruments what these things really look like. Banking at 60 degrees, for example, the G forces would be so strong, you could barely lift your legs off the floor.

NEARY: Well, that's probably how we're feeling at the moment when it's happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: I mean, where do you think this comes from? Do you think people's fear of flying, basically? That sort of...

SMITH: Yeah.

NEARY: ...creates what are obviously exaggerations? Or you think it's just that people like to tell a good story, maybe?

SMITH: I think its get back to people's inherent anxieties about flying. Everybody on some level is afraid of flying and, you know, frankly, how would people know? I mean, they don't have this information in front of them. They don't have instruments telling them how much the plane is turning, how steeply it's climbing and that kind of thing. So, you know, to some degree, we should expect this.

NEARY: Yeah. What about turbulence? Of course, that's everybody's, well, it's not actually is not everybody's nightmare. I know some people who like turbulence - I'm not one of them. And, you know, I'm the kind of person that might say, oh, my plane dropped hundreds of feet. It was terrible. But that's - you say that's not really what's happening.

SMITH: Correct. Even in relatively strong turbulence, the plane will seldom lose more than 15 or 20 feet of altitude. And, you know, you see this on the altimeter in the cockpit as the plane is bumping along. That thing is barely twitching at all. Whereas in the minds of passengers in the back, of course, we're plummeting hundreds, even thousands of feet.

NEARY: Well, what about - and I've never been in one of these flights, and - but - where people will say that, you know, the turbulence was so bad that things got jostled or they hit their head, you know, things like that. Things fell off the tray. Is that a really serious case of - when is turbulence really serious, in your opinion?

SMITH: Well, things like that do happen and every year, so many people are injured by really turbulence. Usually, these people are up and moving around when they shouldn't be and they fall, break an ankle, hurt their neck, hurt their shoulder, that kind of thing. Last number I heard was, every year in this country, about, somewhere around 20 or 30 people are injured by turbulence out of almost a billion who fly every year. So that number kind of jumps out you. Turbulence is, for lack of a better term, normal. It's always there and you just kind of ride it out and deal with it. It's not something a pilot looks at as a problem. It's just a normal part of flying.

NEARY: What about the feeling people have that all planes are being flown on autopilot, is that right?

SMITH: Well, it is. But what is autopilot? You know, this is something that comes up all the time, is the this idea that airplanes, commercial planes, essentially fly themselves and the pilots are there just as a back up to, you know, rush into duty, should, you know, a Captain Sully situation arrives. And this is wrong on so many levels, but it's really hard for me to get my arms around and begin to explain how. Autopilot is a tool. You still have to tell it what to do, how to do it, when to do it. I mean, in my airplane, I fly a 757, for example - there are probably six or seven different ways I can program in, quote, unquote, "automatic climb."

And meanwhile, remember 99 - more than 99 percent of all landings are still performed the old fashion hands-on way. And meanwhile, there's no such thing as an automatic takeoff and all that part in between, well, in a - workload in a cockpit ebbs and flows, and it's not unusual for both pilots to be task-saturated even with the autopilot on.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call in a moment. I just want to remind our listeners that we are talking to Patrick Smith. He's a commercial airline pilot, and he writes the Ask the Pilot column on salon.com. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're going to go to Ruth who's calling from Elk River, Idaho. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Go ahead.

RUTH: My question is, if I honestly don't turn off my phone or game, is the plane really going to crash?

SMITH: Probably not. This is a huge topic, something we could talk about all day long. For the most part, airlines and government regulators are erring on the safe side when it comes to PEDs, phones and what not. But, you know, there's a lot we just don't know about how these devices can or can't affect the electronics on board an aircraft. I think we should leave it at that, otherwise, we'll get bugged out in this topic forever.

NEARY: All right. Thanks.

RUTH: Well, I certainly don't mind you erring on the safe side. Thank you very much.

NEARY: OK.

SMITH: You're welcome.

NEARY: Thanks for your call. And here is an email: Please address the myth that cabin air is re-circulated, thus leading to the increased chance that airborne germs are more easily spread throughout commercial aircraft cabins. Now, I have always thought that was the case. That's not the case?

SMITH: A great topic, and this is something I've written about on Salon many times. There's also an essay on my home site at askthepilot.com. The air on a commercial plane is much cleaner than people give it credit for. It's really not a whole lot different. In fact, it's cleaner than you'll find in most public buildings. A portion of the air is recycled, re-circulated, but it is run through the very efficient hospital-grade filters. People do get sick on airplanes, but it's usually it's from what they touch, not from what they breath; dirty tray tables, lavatory handles and that kind of thing.

NEARY: OK. We're going to take a call now. We're going to go to Eric(ph). He's calling from Boone, North Carolina. Hi, Eric.

ERIC: Hi. I have a question about the effect of turbulence as you're landing on approach. I had an experience from Taiwan where the plane seemed to have dropped hundreds of feet (technical difficulty) and I was curious to just how dangerous is that.

SMITH: Well, how dangerous is what? I mean, going back to what we were just saying, your perception of dropping hundreds of feet, you know, that's something I - without more information, I can't really buy into it. It just doesn't happen. I mean, some approaches, some landings are bumpier than others. But even a really turbulent wind-whipped approach is something a pilot is trained to handle and generally not a big deal from a safety point of view.

NEARY: All right. There you go, Eric, believe it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: There's so much believe it or not in this. And I always like to start up by saying, everything you think you know about air travel is wrong or at least most of it. And it's amazing just how much bad information there is out there.

NEARY: Well, what do you do when you hear somebody making, you know, if you do - if you overhear a passenger making a big statement like that that you know is wrong, do you correct them or do you just let it go?

SMITH: It depends on the situation. I mean, its fun for me, you know, from my prospective being a pilot, writing about air travel and then sitting next to somebody, for example, who is a nervous flyer. It's tempting not to - or it's hard not to engage the person and, you know, have kind of this conversation that we're having right now if I can do that without being, you know, pedantic and condescending, I guess.

NEARY: Uh-huh. All right. Well, let's take another call from Jonathan in Nashville, Tennessee. Hi, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Hey, there. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate that.

NEARY: You're welcome.

JONATHAN: So you guys already addressed my question in terms of the air being re-circulated and getting sick onboard an airplane. But I just want to ask, in terms of the weight with baggage, is there a certain way that the luggage needs to be placed underneath the plane that could actually affect the way it flies?

SMITH: Yes and no. It depends somewhat on the size of the airplane. We used standard weights for passengers and luggage. And, you know, the FAA has done studies where they go and then actually weigh the real passengers and luggage. And, you know, the empirical data is actually pretty good and it's pretty accurate.

Now having said that, again, depending on the plane, you know, the weight of passengers and their baggage is less as a total portion of the plane's weight than people expect. In the case of a fully loaded 747, for example, all of the people and all their bags together comprised maybe 10 percent or less of the plane's weight. Fuel is where most of the weight comes from. On some flights, you know, 300,000 pounds or more of it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Great.

NEARY: I've got one before I let you go. You know, people always kind of tease and make a little bit of fun of how pilots always sound so calm no matter what's going on. So do you all get special training and, you know, how to sound perfectly calm and bland no matter what's going on on the aircraft?

SMITH: I thought you're going to say we all talk with a Southern accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: And that too.

SMITH: I hear that all time too. No, I don't know. Maybe it's something that's inherent in a pilot's nature. I really don't know. Some are, some of us are better than others when it comes to explaining and keeping people calm, but it's something that's important to us. And that we do pride ourselves on, making people feel comfortable and understanding the realities of air travel.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Patrick.

SMITH: Anytime. Thank you.

NEARY: Patrick Smith is a commercial airline pilot. He writes the Ask the Pilot column for salon.com, and his column "You Wouldn't Believe How Long My Flight Was!" ran on January 16th. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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