Whether you’re a novice traveller or frequent flyer, you’ve no doubt heard all kinds of myths flying around about air travel. You know the ones; from being sucked down the toilet mid-flight to tales of planes never daring to venture over the Bermuda Triangle.
To debunk or confirm some common flying myths, we turned to Suzie,* a Melbourne-based flight attendant of 25 years. Brace yourself, though – our germier discoveries may be better left to your imagination.
*Name changed for confidentiality.
1. Your mobile can bring the plane down: Busted!
That’s technically false. Passengers are asked to turn off or put their electronic devices on flight mode because they emit signals that can interfere with navigational and communication networks on the ground.
When a mobile phone is not in flight mode, it constantly seeks coverage or a signal via whatever tower it can find – even when you’re not making a call or browsing the internet.
‘The flight crew is sending and receiving communications from air traffic control,’ said Suzie. ‘At the same time, the plane will also be sending and receiving signals from waypoints, locations on the ground as well as receiving navigation information.
‘So, there’s a lot going on, especially on the taxiways (on the ground). The flight crew need clear information without the possibility of interference.’
Suzie explained how one passenger interfered with communications by not switching their phone over to flight mode.
‘Once on a flight into Perth, I was asked by the flight crew to make a public announcement call for all passengers to check that their mobile devices were in flight mode,’ said Suzie.
‘This was because the crew had interruptions to their navigation information. We soon discovered a passenger sitting forward of the overwing exit still had their phone on.’
2. Drinking on a plane gets you drunk quicker: Confirmed!
We’re not going to burst your champagne bubble – yes, you’ll likely feel the effect of your drink more so in the air than if you were on the ground.
An aircraft’s cabin is pressurised (the equivalent of 6,000 to 8,000 feet of altitude), so your body will absorb less oxygen while in the air. ‘You also dehydrate quicker on a plane, so you need to limit the consumption of tea, coffee and soft drinks,’ said Suzie.
Low-air pressure in the cabin mixed with aircraft noise and the altitude can also affect your taste buds and sense of smell. This is why you can’t taste sweetness or saltiness nearly as well above the clouds, and hence why plane food is usually over-seasoned.
3. You can wear whatever you want on a plane: Busted!
Thankfully, that’s false. Every airline has an in-flight dress code of sorts. Though, not everyone’s aware that air carriers have enforceable dress guidelines for passengers – to the point where you could be booted off the flight if you don’t comply!
However, Suzie said that for most airlines, the main dress requirement for passengers is to wear shoes, which also applies to toddlers. This is usually specified in your airline’s conditions of carriage, and is primarily for safety reasons.
During an emergency (i.e. forced landing), all kinds of debris, like broken glass or shrapnel, could obstruct pathways to the exits and make it difficult to reach safety without proper footwear.
‘Also, please wear shoes in the toilet,’ said Suzie. ‘We endeavour to keep them clean, but that liquid on the floor is probably not water… just saying.
‘Also, if you’re wearing clothing with offensive words or slogans, we may ask for you to turn it inside out or cover it up. What may be funny to you and your mates may not be funny to the family sitting behind you.’
4. Toilets are the germiest place on the plane: Busted!
That’s apparently false. Loo-dicrous, right? But the toilets might be the cleanest place on an aircraft, according to Suzie. The restrooms are cleaned regularly during long-haul and even short flights, and they’re also cleaned when the aircraft is on the ground.
‘The germiest place on the plane is normally your tray table or even your seat belt,’ said Suzie. ‘So, bring some wipes for those!
‘I won’t go into detail, but some people don’t wash their hands after using the toilets. I even found passengers changing nappies on tray tables.’
On the other hand, a study by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) where microbiologists studied samples collected from different surfaces on 18 short-haul flights with three major airlines, revealed that the headrest was the most contaminated place on a plane, where E. coli bacteria was detected. It was followed by the seat pocket, bathroom handle, tray table and seat belt.1
5. Cabin air can make you sick: Busted!
That’s false. Cabin air won’t make you sick per se, but being trapped for hours in a pressurised environment in close proximity to hundreds of passengers might.
‘Aircrafts use bleed air [fresh air pumped in from the outside], which is mixed with recirculated aircraft air. So, if people around you are sick, it’s them you’re getting colds or viruses from, not the aircraft,’ Suzie said.
In fact, a report by the International Air Transport Association revealed that the risk of getting sick aboard a plane is no higher than in other cramped spaces like a bus, train or cinema.2
The report also found that the risk of sickness on aeroplanes is probably lower than in many other confined spaces. This lower risk is because most modern commercial aircrafts have cabin air filtration systems equipped with high-efficiency particle filters (HEPA) filters.
6. It’s best to sit at the front of the plane for a smoother flight: Confirmed!
This is true, depending on the aircraft type.
‘The bigger the aircraft, the more movement or sway down the back,’ said Suzie. ‘This is due to the aircraft fuselage flexing and expanding during flight.’
As a general rule, if you want to feel the least turbulence on your flight, you should aim for a seat towards the front of the plane or directly over the wings, where the centre of gravity is. Passengers sitting in the back of the plane – and especially near the tail – will usually feel the full force of motions.
7. The brace position (in an emergency) decreases your chance of death: Confirmed!
That’s true. While there’s no shortage of morbid conspiracy theories suggesting the opposite (that it’s designed to lead to a quicker death and safeguard passengers’ teeth for easier identification), Suzie says the brace position is intended to protect your head and the trunk of your body, and increase your chances of surviving – just like an airbag in a car.
‘Unfortunately, the airline industry learns and changes procedures whenever there’s an accident in the world,’ said Suzie.
‘We investigate and learn from the loss of lives as to how to improve our standards, our procedures, and how we do our job.’
8. Every flight has an air security officer on board: Busted!
That’s false. The idea of having an air security officer (the Aussie equivalent to US air marshals) on every flight departing Australia is nice, but realistically not feasible.
That’s why flight attendants are trained in security and how to subdue a threat.
‘We undertake security training regularly with the airline I fly with, from verbally diffusing a situation to full passenger restraint,’ said Suzie.
‘Don’t discount your flight attendants; they’re trained to keep you safe – that’s their number one priority.
‘And, if an air security officer is on board, the flight attendants may not even know, and the passengers certainly won’t know. These are amazing, highly-trained individuals.’
That’s it folks! Hopefully knowing the truth about these common air travel myths will help you enjoy the journey as much as the destination!
Sources Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)- What’s the dirtiest surface on an airplane? The result may surprise you (2018).
 International Air Transport Association- Cabin air quality – risk of communicable diseases transmission (2018).