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Airline upgrades, opening doors, plane toilets: 10 of the biggest myths about air travel

Traveller logoTraveller 15/07/2017 Michael Gebicki
Want an upgrade? Dressing nicely is unlikely to help you. © Getty Images Want an upgrade? Dressing nicely is unlikely to help you.

Can you really get stuck on an aircraft toilet, is it true that lightning will zap everyone on board, will oxygen masks get you high? Just like the common cold or nuclear power, flying generates its fair share of untruths.

Here are 10 of the most popular myths unravelled.

You could get sucked out of an open door inflight

You could, although opening the door of a pressurised cabin at cruise altitude is impossible. The fuselage of a commercial jet aircraft is pressurised so that passengers have enough oxygen to breathe.

Since pressure is higher inside than outside the cabin, doors and windows push outward. In order to open the cabin door you would need to overcome the force of that pressure pushing the door outward, and at cruising altitude that's impossible. This door is known as a plug door, since this is what it does. This is also the reason most aircraft doors are larger than their opening. Before the door can be opened it must be pulled inward and turned to open outside the fuselage.

Flying is expensive

Maybe if you travel to an airport served only by Regional Express or another airline with a monopoly on your destination, but in general, air travel has never been cheaper. It now takes a worker on average Australian earnings fewer days to earn enough to pay for a ticket to anywhere in the world than it did five years ago, and far fewer than it did 25 years ago.

Competition from low cost carriers, low fuel costs, more efficient aircraft and airlines that have refined their plane-packing skills and which rely more on ancillary charges to turn a buck have all played their part in delivering lower seat prices.

Aircraft air is an aerosol germ incubator

What you're breathing on an aircraft is a mixture of fresh and recirculated air. This air is completely refreshed every two to three minutes, which is much quicker than in a typical office, classroom or hospital. Fresh air comes from the compressor stage of the jet engines, known as bleed air since it's bled off from the main supply passing through the engines.

After it's cooled in air conditioning units this air passes through a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter, which takes out all but a tiny fraction of airborne particulates, bacteria and viruses. This air is then ducted into the cabin where it swirls around until it exits via the lower fuselage where about half is vented overboard. The remainder is mixed with a fresh incoming supply from the compressors, passed through the HEPA filter again and recirculated. Air coming through the vents is sterile, but if the guy next to you isn't covering up when he sneezes, watch out.

Flying generates its fair share of untruths. © iStock Flying generates its fair share of untruths. You can get an upgrade if you dress like you belong

No you can't. Except for exceptional circumstances, the only flyers who qualify for an upgrade are those with a bundle of loyalty points closely followed by those who have paid for a full flexy fare. On the other hand, if an operational upgrade is required, which happens when a particular class is overbooked and there are spare seats in the class above, and if you're a candidate, a well-dressed you will probably be in the premium seat in preference to the gent wearing thongs and a singlet.

Drinking alcohol inflight gets you drunk faster

Your blood alcohol reading will be the same after that second glass of wine whether you're flying high or by the barbecue, but you might feel the effects more in the air. In an aircraft cabin which is typically pressurised to around 2000m, it is not unusual to experience some of the effects of altitude sickness in mild form. These can include nausea, fatigue, an unsteady gait and headache.

Add alcohol to the cocktail and you're getting what is effectively a double shot. Altitude sickness might not manifest until several hours into a flight so if you hit the drinks tray early you might continue to feel woozy long after you stopped drinking.

Aircraft are no longer sprayed with insecticide when they enter Australia

Sort of true, but not the whole picture. In the past, passengers on all aircraft arriving in Australia would be told to remain seated when the aircraft docked, crew would open the overhead bins and chaps in khaki would march down the aisles squirting aerosol insecticide.

Nowadays the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources allows airlines to perform their own disinfection treatment, which takes place at the last overseas airport before departure for Australia. If the required disinfection has not been carried out the aircraft will be sprayed on arrival prior to passenger disembarkation. This is rare these days, but the khaki brigade is there on standby, aerosol cans at the ready.

The autopilot does most of the flying

Autopilots have evolved over the years into sophisticated computers that are an invaluable aid to the pilot. Autopilots are great at maintaining altitude, heading and airspeed and following the flight plan entered into the Flight Management System. If it's an autoland-capable autopilot it can land the aircraft safely, but you can bet that at take-off and landing it's the pilot flying the aircraft.

There are quite a few things an autopilot can't do on its own, such as manoeuvring away from traffic or terrain, changing altitude, initiating an approach to landing or dealing with emergencies. Could an autopilot do what Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger did when a bird strike caused both engines of his A320 to fail shortly after take-off and he landed the aircraft on New York's Hudson River, saving the lives of all on board? Definitely not.

Aircraft can discharge toilet waste inflight

The toilet on an aircraft is part of a sealed system. The waste goes into a holding tank that can only be opened from the outside. However leaks happen. There are well documented cases of large chunks of ice falling from the sky from time to time and smashing through roofs. These could only come from an aircraft. The most likely scenario is that a leak will form as ice on the fuselage when the aircraft passes through cold air at cruise altitude then drop off when the ice thaws as the aircraft descends. This is known coyly as blue ice because another word that rhymes with "blue" is a little too close to the truth.

Aircraft drop many metres during turbulence

It might feel like that from the way your coffee cup is jumping around but highly unlikely. According to airline pilots, when they hit one of these potholes in the sky the aircraft might bump by around five metres. In wild and severe turbulence, an aircraft might fall, or experience a "deviation in altitude" in pilot-speak, of around 30 metres, but that is extremely rare. Apart from the danger of passengers clonking their heads on the overhead bins or scalding themselves with hot beverages, turbulence is not a safety issue. Aircraft are built to withstand extreme g-forces. The wings won't fall off, nor will an engine.

Pilots hook up with flight attendants

This is a scandalous untruth that seeks to besmirch the reputation of highly skilled and dedicated professionals. Actually, they do. Not all but some. Pilots and cabin crew might be away from their base overnight, they stay in the same hotels, they hang out together, some will party and the layover can become a playover. Pretty much like any other profession. And just like the office affair, the other crew members will get to know, and it often ends in tears. However most pilots and cabin crew are so drained by the time they reach their away-from-home hotel room all they want to do is order room service, watch a TV show that their child did not select and sleep.


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