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October 22, 2006

Airline Secrets

Ever wonder if the airlines are telling you the truth about air travel? Well, recently “The Economist” answered those concerns with an article dispelling many of the myths we hear over the cabin PA, and I’ve added a few more.

SEATING: Ever wonder why seats face forward in the plane? Is it because we like to watch what’s going on in first class? Actually, research shows that rear-facing seats are much safer in the event of an emergency. Just ask the military which fits seats on transport planes facing the rear.

SEATBELTS: We’re asked to keep them fastened whenever we’re seated in the event of “bumpy air”. The better term to use would be “clear air turbulence” when, unexpectedly, the plane plummets hundreds of feet sending everything… including untethered passengers, food service carts and laptops… hurling upward. Better give that belt an extra tug.

LIFE JACKETS: Yes, we know they’re under the seat. But they claim they’re only for use in a “water landing”. Mind you, never in the history of aviation has a wide-body plane successfully “landed” on the water. So don’t sweat the life jacket or the detachable slides which supposedly double as rafts. Bring a snorkel.

EVACUATIONS: To be certified by the FAA, aircraft must prove they can be completely evacuated in 90 seconds. The aircraft manufacturers cheat a bit in passing this test, using employee families and friends in trials where everyone knows what will happen and have an obvious interest in getting the plane OK’ed. You know how long it takes to board an aircraft. Can you imagine 900 people racing for the exits on the new double-decked A-380 and getting off the craft in a minute and a half? Next time they do the pre-flight check, pay attention. Know where the emergency exits are. You may need to get off that plane fast!

CELLPHONES: Turn ‘em all off. Blackberries, too. We’re told they interfere with aircraft navigation and communication. Seems logical, until you hear that several European carriers are soon to offer in-flight cellphone use… for a fee. The truth is, cellphones don’t interfere with aircraft as much as the ground network.

IN-FLIGHT SNACKS: Though meals are a rarity these days on anything but long-haul flights, beverages and snacks are still available. Not for nutrition, mind you, but mostly for amusement. And the airlines actually push the booze to keep passengers somewhat sedated. Cynics even suggest that airlines turn down the cabin air-quality a notch or two to make passengers drowsy and keep them in their seats, out of the way of flight crews.

SAFETY: Yes, your checked luggage is screened before being loaded. But 99% of the cargo being carried in the plane’s belly is not. Now a terrorist can’t travel with a bomb, but they can ship one instead.

LIQUIDS: Last summer’s terror scare left millions of us dehydrated as we were forced to leave our water bottles landside. Now, those rules are being relaxed a bit. We can buy beverages after clearing security (“Wow… water for only $1.89!”). But the real explosives… perfumes and duty-free booze… are still allowed on.

OVERBOOKING: We all know that most flights are over-sold as the airlines hope to fill flights, despite no-shows. And we’ve all seen the bidding war if an over-full flight seeks “volunteers” to take a later plane and free tickets. But in Europe the rules are different. If passengers can’t board due to over-booking or flight delays, they’re entitled to compensation of between $300 and $750, depending on the length of the flight.
JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at or

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