According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are over 5,000 aircraft in the air at any given time. There were over 43,000 daily flights in 2016, adding up to over 16 million total flights for the year—that’s a lot of airtime. That’s also a staggering number of people filtering on and off of those planes, thousands of airline snacks opened and eaten, and tons of blankets passed out and slept beneath.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. The people who work on the flights do.
If you’ve ever wondered about the inner workings of airline crews or what secrets those crews are holding, we’ve got some answers. Real flight attendants who work for real major airlines gave us the inside scoop about the obscure questions you’ve always wanted answered. They asked for anonymity to avoid getting into trouble at work—you're really not supposed to share this stuff with the passengers. Just be sure to read this while you're on solid ground.
1. Do crew members have any secret signals used to communicate when needing to be a little more subtle?
They have to have something, right? Airline crew members have a lot of responsibilities, and sometimes they might need to convey information without any passengers eavesdropping on what’s going on. One attendant tells FashionBeans that they do have a system, but it’s not as elaborate or exciting as you might think.
"The different chimes on different aircrafts mean different things,” our source, who we'll call Kathy, tells us. (You'll understand why she asked for anonymity when you see the secrets she reveals.)
So those "dings" you hear during the first and last stages of flying let flight crews know that the most dangerous parts of the journey are over. ("The first and last 10,000 [feet] of flying … [are] the most dangerous because of takeoff and landing," Kathy explains.)
Other bells go off when there's an emergency or a call between members of the flight crew. There are even signals for severe turbulence. But communication gets really serious when anyone, flight crew or not, tries to get in or out of the cockpit.
"There is certain ways you are suppose to communicate with the cockpit during flight, especially if there is a flight attendant trying to get in or a pilot trying to get out," Kathy says. "A breach of the cockpit is pretty much the worst thing that can happen during flight.”
2. When the masks fall, how much time/oxygen do you have?
No one really wants to be in a situation where the oxygen masks fall. However, you can’t help but think about how much time you really have if that were to happen.
It turns out that drop-down masks supply about 15 minutes' worth of oxygen, Kathy tells us. John Cox, a retired airline captain, estimates even less time. Cox told USA Today that the oxygen usually only flows for 10 to 14 minutes. But don't panic!
"I know that sounds scary, but it's the pilot's job to get the plane to a low enough [altitude] so that the pressure outside and the pressure inside equalize and you can breath easier," Kathy says. "There are two portable oxygen bottles on the planes I fly on (on smaller planes there are less and on larger planes there are more), and the bottle supplies oxygen up to like two hours.”
Cox echoes Kathy's statement about pilots descending to an altitude that's safe for breathing, so don't let the minimal oxygen supply onboard get you down.
3. Do people really need to turn their electronics off? What do they affect during the flight?
Sometimes it’s too tempting to keep Snapchatting, even through your flight's takeoff. What’s the worst that can happen? Do we really have to delay posting that adorable airplane selfie?
“Yes, you really do—at least the [cellular] service," a flight attendant says. "It’s the same reason you can't have large magnetized materials [like speaker systems] on board. It may interfere with navigational and communication equipment in the cockpit.”
Oh well, then. That's a pretty good reason to switch off your phone. That Instagram post can probably wait until you land.
4. How much authority does the pilot actually have?
We’ve all heard horror stories of being stuck on the tarmac while an unruly passenger refuses to follow instructions and ends up getting kicked off the flight. Who is calling the shots in those situations, and can the pilot really kick you off a plane?
“Well, that depends on which pilot," Kathy says.
It turns out that all pilots are not created equal. One flight attendant we spoke to explained that there are two ranks sitting in the cockpit: a captain and the first officer.
"The captain has all the power," the flight attendant says.
"When we are in the air he/she owns the seats on that plane—not the airline. He/she makes the final decision on basically everything," Kathy explains. "If there is a situation in the cabin, he/she makes the final call, whether that be landing and removing said person, refusing to take off, calling the police or medical staff [and] so on. But the thing is, the captain is in the cockpit behind a closed door in the air, so whatever he/she doesn't know, they can’t do anything about. But yes, they hold a lot of authority.”
5. Is any one seat safer than another?
We figured we'd take this opportunity to learn the safest seat on the plane, so we can always slip in there while everyone else argues over aisle or window. As it turns out, Kathy was pretty terse when we posed the question. Is there a safest seat on the plane?
“No, not that I know of,” she says.
Analysis published in Time suggests Kathy's hunch is right. The magazine's reporters combed through the Federal Aviation Administration's CSRTG Aircraft Accident Database looking for cases that included seating charts. They used this data to break down the regions of the plane by fatality rate. The reporters found that the front third of a commercial jet had a 38 percent fatality rate in the event of a crash. The middle was almost the same, with a 39 percent fatality rate. The rear of the plane was slightly safer, with a fatality rate of just 32 percent. Still, that's not much of a spread when you're talking about surviving a plane crash.
The good news is that you probably won't crash. The latest statistics from the International Air Transport Association notes that the rate of major jet accidents was just 0.39 per million flights in 2016. That's one serious airline mishap per 2.56 million flights. So no matter where you sit, you're very, very likely to land in one piece.
6. Do airline blankets get regularly replaced or cleaned?
Long flights usually call for a nap. Since you have no control over the temperature of the plane, you often find yourself curling up (as best as you can) with a blanket provided by the airline. As you tuck the corners in around your body, you may think “How many people have used this blanket? How many sneezes has this blanket absorbed?” Turns out, it’s better not to think about it, as our sources tell us.
“It's gross," Kathy says. "They replace [blankets,] but they sure as hell don't get cleaned."
The news about airline blankets really broke back in 2007, when a Wall Street Journal reporter named Darren Everson blew the lid off the story. He found that some airlines washed their blankets just once every five days, while others went a whole month between washes. Airlines aren't quick to report their numbers today, but according to our insider, not much has changed.
7. How thoroughly do the trays, armrests, or windows get cleaned?
There has to be some kind of cleaning system? Right? Well, if there is, the flight attendant we spoke to can't really give us the details.
“Never seen it done," Kathy says. "The most they do when they clean the plane (from what I've seen) is they vacuum and empty trash."
Still, Kathy admits that she doesn't see everything.
"Now, they could do cleaning on overnights (when the plane is done flying for the day)," she says. "But in between flights, no. Nothing is sanitized or cleaned. Ever. And I am not allowed to bring any cleaning supplies on a plane. I just bring hand sanitizer with me everywhere and pray.”
Of course, we aren't the first ones to ask this question. Way back in 2014, Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times wanted to know how thoroughly airline cabins get cleaned. He reached out to Jean Medina, a spokesperson for airline trade group Airlines for America.
"Airlines know that cleanliness of aircraft is important to customers when they make their travel decisions," Medina told Martin. "As such, airlines work continuously to keep planes clean."
Just not, you know, when the flight attendants are around, it seems.
8. What happens when a passenger refuses to fasten their seatbelt, or follow any other instructions?
When crew members say put up your tray table, they mean it. It's actually illegal to disobey the safety messages your flight attendants give you, our source says.
"If anyone has ever actually listened to the safety demo, we say, 'FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires passenger compliance with lighted no smoking and fasten seat belt signs as well as all posted placards and all crew members instructions,'" Kathy tells us.
She's not wrong. Part 121.571 of the FAA's flight operations law says exactly what Kathy did, almost to the word—which isn't surprising for someone who repeats the law out loud every day of her working life. Anyway, even if it weren't against the law to leave your laptop out on the tray with your seat unbuckled during takeoff, it's just plain rude, our source says.
"We cannot take off until all tray tables, seat backs up, carry on secure, seat belts on," Kathy says. "I mean, that's just for safety."
If you're feeling rebellious, and you really want to finish whatever you're doing on Minecraft while the flight crew is trying to take off, your fate is left up to the captain.
"This passenger could be removed from the flight or, if we are in flight, they could even call and have police waiting at the gate to escort who ever it is off," Kathy reveals. "It really depends on the situation and the offence. But the captain usually has our backs in that situation.”
9. We've heard the pilot and co-pilot don't eat the same meal (to minimize the chance of food poisoning issues). Is that true?
It is true, our flight attendant says.
“That's in the handbook," Kathy says. "The captain and first officer cannot eat the same meal at the same restaurant the night before a trip. I'm not so sure how much it is enforced though.”
This seems like an excessive rule, but if you’ve ever had food poisoning, it does make sense. You definitely don’t want the individuals in charge of flying your plane to be running to the bathroom every few minutes.
10. What are your top three passenger pet peeves?
Of course, we want to know what annoys crew members the most. The first offense one flight attendant mentions is taking forever to decide what beverage you'd like.
"More often than not for regionals, there are more passengers on the plane than minutes in the flight," our source says. "I ain't got time for that."
This airline worker also hates it when people try to get a jump on the other passengers at the end of the flight. It may be super tempting to unbuckle and go for your overhead luggage while the plane is taxiing to the terminal, but that's also a great way to earn the undying enmity of your flight crew.
"That is very dangerous, and really annoying," Kathy explains. "You can get to your bags in three minutes when the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign. Not when we've just stopped. Taxi ways are no joke."
Last but not least, stretching out that final phone call before the flight can really irritate the folks who are there to keep you safe and comfortable until you touch down at your final destination. One airline worker we spoke to admits to nearly losing their cool when passengers remain on the phone after being told to put their devices in airplane mode.
"I don't think they realize that we are literally waiting on them," Kathy tells FashionBeans. "We can't do anything until that call is ended. You're delaying the entire flight.”
Don't be that person. Fly safe, fly polite, and fly without infuriating your flight attendants. That is all.