There’s a lot of confusion about how air travel works, and even more about what’s going to happen this summer. Here are some of the most common questions I get.
A: There is always a risk that a plane will crash. The risk is much lower than it used to be, because planes are safer than they used to be. We don’t have to worry about things like metal fatigue anymore, and we can track where planes are with GPS, so we know when one is lost. But there is still a risk that something will go wrong, and it isn’t zero. When you get on an airplane, your life is in the hands of people you never see and whose decisions you cannot influence.
The other way to look at this is that flying has become such a routine part of life that the chance of dying in a crash seems alarming precisely because flying has become so routine. This doesn’t mean the danger isn’t real; it means it’s hard for us to keep things in proper perspective.
To put it another way: if everyone stayed home because they were afraid of flying, then no one would fly and we’d all be better off–except for the fact that staying home would kill us too.
There is something about flying that makes people want to talk about flying. Since I spend a lot of time flying, I hear my fair share of airplane myths. Here are ten that come up most frequently:
The FAA and/or the airline will throw you off an airplane for excessive flatulence.
This myth has been around for as long as I’ve been working in aviation. I’ve even seen it reported in the media. The truth is that the FAA does not regulate flatulence on airplanes. No federal agency does, nor does any airline. As long as you’re not doing something weird or causing a disturbance, you’ll be fine to do your thing in your seat without being kicked off the plane.*
There are many myths about airplanes, but a few of them are very common. I recently flew on an airplane and the flight attendant announced a few of these myths to the passengers. These myths include:
Myth 1: You will be sucked out of a plane if the plane experiences sudden decompression.
Myth 2: If you are flying in an airplane that is struck by lightning, your plane will crash.
Myth 3: Obeying the emergency exit instructions will save you time during an evacuation.
Myth 4: You can survive jumping out of a plane without a parachute or other safety device.
As you can see, many people believe these myths, but they are not true at all! Let’s examine them one by one:
1. Myth 1: You will be sucked out of a plane if the plane experiences sudden decompression.
This is false because planes are built to withstand rapid decompression and to seal off certain areas if there is such an event. Of course, this does not mean that there is no risk involved when there is decompression; however, it does mean that you won’t be sucked out of the airplane if there is decompression. If you would like more information about how planes are built to withstand rapid decompression, please see
Airplanes have not always been the safest way to travel. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a person is about 20 times more likely to die in a car accident than on a commercial flight (1). However, this is a little misleading because an average American will spend much more time in a car than in an airplane each year. A better comparison would be death rates per mile traveled. According to the National Safety Council (2), the death rate for cars and light trucks is about 5 deaths per 100 million miles traveled (3). For airlines it is about 1 death per 100 million miles traveled (4). This means that you are five times more likely to die in a car than on an airplane (5). This number has been decreasing over time, though. In 1985, the airline death rate was 6 deaths per 100 million miles traveled while cars were just 3 deaths per 100 million miles traveled (6)(7)(8)(9)(10).
The National Safety Council defines a “death” as “fatalities of occupants of motor vehicles on public roads” (11) and notes that “occupants include drivers, passengers and non-occupants such as pedestrians and pedalcyclists.” When looking at numbers regarding incidents involving only airplanes
In the US, the FAA has a relatively new requirement for planes to be able to fly from one airport to another even if both engines cut out. This is called “ETOPS” or Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards.
The normal ETOPS rating is 180 minutes. That means you have to have an alternate airport within 3 hours flying time (at your maximum speed). If you want to fly farther than that, it gets much more complicated. There are multiple levels of ETOPS certification, up to the point where there are no longer any restrictions because once you get far enough away from land there aren’t any airports anyway.
Note that this only applies to commercial passenger planes. Cargo planes don’t need it because they can’t legally carry passengers, and private planes don’t need it because they aren’t certified by the FAA in the first place.
I put together a list of the top 5 most common myths and misconceptions. So the next time you fly, you’ll be able to separate fact from fiction.