Every single day, more than 100,000 flights carrying 10 million passengers take off from airports around the world. However, while passengers log a total of 76 billion hours traveling by plane per year, many know precious little about the vehicles getting them safely from point A to point B, or the industry that makes those honeymoons, business trips, and beach vacations possible.
Beyond those bags of peanuts and staid safety presentations, there’s an entire world of things you never knew about flying the friendly skies. So, fasten your seat belts, return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, and dig in to these fascinating flying facts.
The fastest commercial plane flew at twice the speed of sound.
The Concorde, which offered flights continuously from 1976 to 2003, traveled at twice the speed of sound. In fact, the supersonic jet, which could achieve speeds up to 1,354 miles per hour, also broke a number of world records for its speed, in one case earning the record for the fastest transatlantic flight when it transported passengers from JFK in New York to Heathrow Airport in London in just 2 hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds.
Pilots and co-pilots eat different meals on a flight.
While it’s only a hard-and-fast rule on certain airlines, most pilots and co-pilots won’t eat the same thing for dinner. This way, if the food is contaminated and one pilot gets sick, the other should still be able to man the aircraft.
A hijacker once relinquished control of a flight for beer.
In 1985, an ex-con who hijacked a Norwegian Boeing 737 armed with a pistol decided to abandon his plan so long as the police were willing to give him one thing: beer. In the end, the plane landed safely at Fornebu Airport in Oslo, none of the 115 passengers on board were harmed, and the hijacker was arrested.
The dirtiest place on the plane isn’t the bathroom.
In fact, the filthiest place on a plane is that tray table you’re eating your meal off of. According to a study conducted by TravelMath, tray tables hosted 2,155 colony-forming bacterial units (CFU) per square inch. In comparison, the button to flush the toilet had just 265 CFU in the same amount of space.
There are thousands of planes over the U.S. at any moment.
While you may only see the occasional plane pass by overhead, that doesn’t mean the sky isn’t full of them. In fact, according to the FAA, there are 5,000 planes in the air over the United States at any moment in time, and more than 8,000 flying across the globe.
Takeoff and landing are the most dangerous times during a flight.
According to a report from Boeing, 13 percent of fatal accidents occur during a flight’s takeoff and initial climb, or the first three minutes of a flight. However, the descent and landing, or the final eight minutes of the flight, are far deadlier, accounting for 48 percent of all fatal accidents.
The world’s largest airplane weighs nearly 600 tons.
The Antonov An-225 has an impressive maximum takeoff weight of 591.7 tons. In comparison, the Boeing 747-8F’s maximum takeoff weight is 489,218 pounds less, at 347.091 tons.
The safest seats on an aircraft are those at the back of the plane.
According to crash data compiled by Time, the fatality rate for seats in the rear third of a plane during a crash was 32 percent. The middle of the plane was the least safe, with a 39 percent fatality rate, while the front was marginally safer with a 38 percent fatality rate.
In-flight oxygen masks aren’t intended to last the whole flight.
In fact, according to a report from the Air Accident Investigation & Aviation Safety Board, those masks only provide 12 minutes of continuous airflow on a 737. Luckily, that’s typically just the amount of time needed for your flight to find a safe landing spot.
Airplanes can trigger lightning.
When a plane passes through clouds, the static created can actually spur the development of lightning. Fortunately, even if your plane is struck, you’re likely pretty safe. There hasn’t been a lightning-related plane crash in the United States since 1963, and increasing safety measures have made lightning strikes less dangerous to passengers than ever before. When lightning strikes a plane, the electrical current is evenly distributed throughout the aircraft’s conductive aluminum interior, while grounding the plane’s interior electrical systems prevents surges that could interfere with its functionality.
Pilots frequently fall asleep on the job.
So, who’s flying your plane, exactly? Maybe no one—at least for portions of the flight. According to a 2017 report by the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), among a group of 500 pilots polled, 43 percent admitted to accidentally falling asleep while manning the plane, while 31 percent admitted to waking up from a nap to find their co-pilot sleeping, as well.
Airplane blankets aren’t always washed between passengers.
If you’re thinking of cozying up under one of those airplane blankets, think again. According to one report published in the Wall Street Journal, some airlines clean their blankets as infrequently as once every 30 days.
A Boeing 747 tank can hold 48,445 gallons of fuel.
That’s 17,248 times the amount of fuel held in the gas tank of a Dodge Ram pickup truck. However, not all of that fuel is being used during a single flight—in fact, the plane only uses an average of five gallons of fuel per mile, meaning a 3,450-mile trip from New York to London only requires about a third of the plane’s total fuel capacity.
Dimming the aircraft’s lights serves a purpose beyond sleep.
While it’s nice to imagine that airlines are simply hoping you’ll get in some restful sleep, that’s not exactly the truth. In fact, dimming the lights aboard a plane helps passengers’ eyes adjust to the dark, an essential component in helping them survive should there be a sudden nighttime evacuation.
Plane exhaust kills more people than plane crashes.
According to a study conducted at MIT, airplane emissions are linked to 8,000 deaths each year. The number of people killed in plane crashes? Under 1,000.
Plane doors can’t actually open in mid-flight.
While numerous people have tried to open the exterior door to an airplane mid-flight (only to find themselves arrested later for doing so), actually doing so would be next to impossible. The interior pressure within the plane ranges from 4 to 14 PSI, meaning that unless The Hulk or Thanos boarded your plane, it’s unlikely that the door could be opened.
All pilots who fly internationally must speak English.
English may not be the official language of the United States, but it is the language of air travel. In 2003, the International Civil Aviation Association introduced new requirements to the Chicago Convention that stipulated that all pilots flying internationally must be proficient in so-called aviation English to prevent potentially-fatal communication errors.
Pointing a laser pointer at a plane is a serious crime.
Drive your pets crazy with a laser pointer all you want, but never aim that annoying red dot at a plane. According to 18 U.S. Code Section 39A, if you point a laser pointer at a plane or its flightpath, you can enjoy up to five years in prison to think about what you’ve done.
The world’s oldest airline will turn 100 in 2019.
Dutch airline KLM has the longest continuously operating record in the world. The Amsterdam-based airline’s planes have been lifting off and touching down since 1919.
Black boxes aren’t actually black.
The black box, also known as the Flight Data Recorder, is actually painted bright orange. The heat-resistant paint used to coat the boxes’ exteriors comes in a highlighter-orange hue, which also happens to make them easier to find in case of an accident.
Airplane bathrooms can be opened from the outside.
While flipping that latch inside the bathroom that turns the door sign to “occupied” may give you some semblance of privacy, there’s an easy way for flight personnel to get in if they need to. Underneath that lavatory sign, there’s a switch that allows flight crew to open the door if they’re concerned about your safety or the safety of other passengers.
One airline has had no fatal accidents.
Despite being in business for nearly 100 years, Australian airline Qantas has never had a fatal accident involving one of its commercial aircrafts.
There are 140 miles of wiring inside a Boeing 747.
According to a report from technology company Tyco Electronics, which manufactures wire connectors for the aviation industry, a 747 can pack 750,000 feet, or 140 miles, of wire inside it, weighing approximately 3,500 pounds in total.
American Airlines saved $40,000 by cutting one ingredient from meals.
When attempting to cut costs in the 1980s, American Airlines discovered that removing just one item from passengers’ meals would do the trick. By simply nixing just one olive from the salads served in-flight, the airline saved a staggering $40,000 in the course of a single year.
Airplane water is riddled with bacteria.
You might want to shell out the extra cash for a ridiculously-overpriced bottle of water at the airport. A report from the Wall Street Journal reveals that bacteria including salmonella and staphylococcus were found in airplane water, in addition to insect eggs. Another study conducted at the University of Limerick found 37 distinct bacterial species in airplane water, with long-haul flights having worse water quality than their short-haul counterparts.
Some of the deadliest crashes happen when planes are securely on the ground.
In 1977, the deadliest crash in the history of aviation happened on the ground. Pan Am Flight 1736 and KLM Flight 4805, both Boeing 747s, crashed into one another in Tenerife. However, it wasn’t an error on either pilot’s part, per se—low fog made visibility poor, and the airport’s runways were overly congested, leading to the two planes colliding, killing 583 passengers and crew members in the resulting fire.
Airplane air is significantly drier than any you might experience on earth.
While the Mojave Desert in the Western United States often has humidity levels up to 50 percent, you’ll get just a fraction of that moisture aboard a plane. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the humidity aboard your average aircraft hovers under 20 percent.
The most expensive First Class seat costs over $30,000.
The Etihad Airways First Apartment, a private room with a bed, armchair, vanity and makeup mirror, and onboard shower, can run you close to $40,000 for a round-trip ticket from New York to Dubai.
Your taste buds change in flight.
Good news for those who don’t find airplane meals particularly palatable: you’re not actually tasting as much of them as you might imagine. The difference in air pressure and the low humidity in a plane’s cabin make it more difficult for your taste buds to register sweet and salty flavors.
Traveling by plane is the safest way to get around.
Traveling by airplane is extremely safe—and getting safer every year. In 2017, there were zero deaths related to commercial aircraft accidents. By comparison, during the same year 40,100 people died in car accidents in the United States alone.