Illustration of a plane with a screaming window symbolising an anxious flyer

The Layover:
Panic in aisle 13


Ever wondered what brings out your inner anxious flyer? So has Zack Cahill, who returns to The Layover, his new, anything-goes column for The Experientialist. After dissecting what’s arguably a more pleasant phenomenon to do with air travel last month, he now takes a closer look at some of the myths and concerns passengers might have while 30,000 feet up in the air.

On a recent podcast, I learned that Queer Eye host Antoni Porowski never drinks airplane coffee. He claimed that the water – all of it, from your tea and coffee to the stuff in the bathroom taps – comes from the same tank that they’re only required to wash once a year. It’s a claim so persistent that even many flight attendants claim to avoid the in-flight beverages. Though it initially sounded silly, his reasoning had just enough plausibility to worm its way into my brain. And since I was in fact on a flight while listening to that podcast, I avoided the coffee and instead pondered the many myths, rumours and fears (unfounded and real) that fuel our anxiety around flying.

I’m not a properly anxious flyer, but I have my moments. I think most of us do. If we’re honest, a few turbulent bumps are all that separate ‘statistically it’s the safest way to travel’ from ‘we’re not meant to be up here! The gods are furious!’.

The sky is a place where superstitions have taken hold. Just look for row 13 next time you board a plane if you want proof. Like some hotels, many airlines eliminate 13 due to its unlucky connotations. World War II fighter pilots blamed Gremlins – mischievous, mythical goblin-like creatures – for breakdowns and malfunctions. There’s something about the vulnerable and powerless feeling of air travel that puts our minds to myths and superstitions. So let’s address a few.

Firstly, to put a thousand childhood nightmares to bed: you’re not getting sucked down the toilet if you flush too soon. MythBusters dealt with this one a few years ago. While, yes, there is a vacuum, you’d have to form a perfect seal around the bowel to get stuck. Which, even with plenty of junk in the trunk, is unlikely. You’re not getting sucked out the door either. The cabin is pressurised, and it is scientifically impossible for some malicious or clumsy idiot to open the door mid-flight.

Oh, and as for what does get vacuumed out of the toilet bowl… no, they do not freeze it and dump it out of the plane mid-air. Rumours of so-called ‘blue ice’ abounded in the nineties, but aside from being bad form, it’s illegal, and pilots have no mechanism to jettison the stuff. That’s not to say there haven’t been one or two mishaps, like that one time a chunk of frozen crap tore a hole in the roof of the Essex Street Chapel in Kensington, London. But broadly, you’re not at risk of death by fly-by pooping.

Flying high: commercial aircraft usually ascend to around 35,000 feet… not that an anxious flyer would want to know.

Here’s one that, at least for a brief period between 1968 and 1972, was actually a reasonable cause for concern for an anxious flyer. Turns out those four years were the golden years of hijacking. No less than 326 hijackings took place worldwide, a rate of more than five per week. Bizarre though it seems, there was a time when air piracy was a near-daily occurrence. But since the vast majority involved no violence whatsoever, the public seemed to pretty much take it in their stride (the phenomenon was even parodied in Mad Magazine). Most of the hijackers’ demands involved diverting to Cuba. So common was this demand that plans were put in place to build a replica of Havana airport in Florida so that pilots could trick their captors into thinking they were home. As anyone who’s tried to take a bottle of water through security now knows, safety measures have been greatly beefed up since then.

Here’s a bit of rapid-fire myth-busting before we go: airplanes are not breeding grounds for disease. The air is constantly filtered, and that’s a good thing. But if you’re sat next to someone with a stinking cold for eight hours, yes, you’ll catch a sniffle. Alcohol is not more effective at altitude. You’re just bored and drinking fast. The oxygen masks are not decoys, nor do they contain an intoxicating calming gas; they give you oxygen, the clue being in the name.

But of course, some myths do turn out to be true.

Bird strike, the phenomenon whereby birds become unwilling kamikazes, smashing through a plane’s engines and causing a crash, really was a problem at one point. Which is why modern engines are tested with chickens. That’s right. Someone, somewhere is firing chicken carcasses into an active airplane engine so that people can fly to Magaluf in safety.

And you really are safe and getting safer all the time. Between 1988 and 1997 there was one fatality for every 1.3 million flyers. These days it’s one for every 11 million. You’re safe. There are no hijackers, no blue ice, no gremlins.

And that thing about the coffee, and how water tanks are only required to be washed once a year? Apologies to you if you’re an anxious flyer, but that one turned out to be true. Kind of. It varies from carrier to carrier, but American regulations only require airlines to clean the tank once a year. So maybe stick to bottled. Or wine, Just don’t expect to get drunk quicker. That’s a myth.

Illustration by Martin Perry and photography by Matteo Fusco

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