34 things your airplane pilot won’t tell you

We asked pilots from around the world to give us straight answers about maddening safety rules, inexplicable delays, the air and attitudes up there, and what really happens behind the cockpit door. What they told us will change the way you fly.

I’ve been struck by lightning twice
Most pilots have. Airplanes are built to take it. You hear a big boom and see a big flash and that’s it. You’re not going to fall out of the sky. –Airplane pilot for a regional US carrier

You may not be getting the airline you paid for
You may go to an airline website and buy a ticket, pull up to its desk at the kerb and get onto an airplane that has a similar name painted on it, but half the time you’re really on a regional airline. The regionals aren’t held to the same safety standards as the majors: their pilots aren’t required to have as much training and experience, and the public doesn’t know that. – Captain at a major US airline.

If you’re a nervous flier, book a morning flight
The heating of the ground later causes bumpier air, and it’s much more likely to thunderstorm in the afternoon. – Jerry Johnson, LA pilot. Don’t miss these 5 ways to make long-haul flights more bearable.

The smoothest place to sit is often over or near the wing
The bumpiest place to sit is in the back. A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much. – Patrick Smith, airplane pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential. Learn more about how seat comfort will evolve in the future of flight.

Sit in the back if you’re always cold
The general flow of air in any airplane is from front to back. So if you’re really concerned about breathing the freshest possible air or not getting too hot, sit as close to the front as you can. Planes are generally warmest in the back. – Tech pilot at a regional US airline.

There’s a reason you can’t use your phone
Well, what can happen is 12 people will decide to call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are. – Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot. Here are 10 more things you should never do on an airplane.

Listen when I tell you to put your laptop away
We don’t make you stow your laptop because we’re worried about electronic interference. It’s about having a projectile on your lap. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get hit in the head by a MacBook going 200 miles per hour. And we’re not trying to ruin your fun by making you take off your headphones. We just want you to be able to hear us if there’s an emergency. – Patrick Smith. Here are 7 useful tips for keeping your personal items safe while travelling.

Turbulence is not the problem
Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s annoying. – Patrick Smith. 

It’s updrafts we really worry about
A plane flies into a massive updraft, which you can’t see on the radar at night, and it’s like hitting a giant speed bump at 500 miles an hour. It throws everything up in the air and then down very violently. That’s not the same as turbulence, which bounces everyone around for a while. – John Nance, aviation safety analyst and retired airline captain. If the worst were to occur, however, here’s how to survive a plane crash.

Being on time is more important than getting everyone there
[In the United States], the Department of Transportation has put such an emphasis on on-time performance that we pretty much aren’t allowed to delay a flight anymore, even if there are 20 people on a connecting flight that’s coming in just a little late. – Commercial pilot from North Carolina. 

We fudge numbers when it comes to flight time
No, it’s not your imagination: airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes. – AirTran Airways captain, US.

We are often low on fuel
I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you’re running out of gas and you have to go to an alternate airport. – Captain at a major US airline.

You’ll never hear this phrase
You’ll never hear “One of our engines just failed.” What they’ll say instead: “One of our engines is indicating improperly.” (Or more likely, they’ll say nothing, and you’ll never know the difference. Most planes fly fine with one engine down.) You’ll also never hear, “Well, folks, the visibility out there is zero.” Instead they’ll say: “There’s some fog in the area.” – Patrick Smith.

There’s no such thing as a water landing
It’s called crashing into the ocean. – Airplane pilot, South Carolina, USA. Check out this real-life tale of two pilots who did indeed crash into the sea and lived to tell the tale.

The truth is, we’re exhausted
Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud. – Captain at a major US airline.

We’re actually jealous of your onboard meal
Sometimes the airline won’t give us lunchbreaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food. – First officer on a US regional carrier.

This is why you get sick after flying
Most people get sick after travelling not because of what they breathe but because of what they touch. Always assume that the tray table and the button to push the seat back have not been wiped down, though we do wipe down the lavatory. – Patrick Smith. While you’re at it. can you guess what’s the biggest germ culprit at the airport?

This is when to REALLY pay attention
It’s one thing if the pilot puts the seat belt sign on for the passengers, but if he tells the flight attendants to sit down, you’d better listen. That means there’s some serious turbulence ahead. – John Greaves airline accident lawyer and former airline captain, Los Angeles.

Driving is WAY scarier than flying
People always ask, “What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?” I tell them it was a van ride from the Los Angeles airport to the hotel, and I’m not kidding. – Jack Stephan, US pilot. Could it be because of the rising incidences of road rage?

What pilots like to hear the most
Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot’s skill. So if you want to say something nice to a pilot as you’re getting off the plane, say “Nice landing.” We do appreciate that. – Joe D’Eon, pilot at a major US airline who produces a podcast at flywithjoe.com. Here’s how to tell if someone is actually insulting you, even if it sounds like a compliment.

Is travelling with a baby in your lap safe?
No. It’s extremely dangerous. If there’s any impact or deceleration, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose hold of your kid, and he becomes a projectile. But the government’s logic is that if we made you buy an expensive seat for your baby, you’d just drive, and you’re more likely to be injured driving than flying. – Patrick Smith. Here are 7 more incredibly dangerous parenting moves even careful parents make by mistake.

Keep your seatbelt on
Most of you wouldn’t consider going down the highway at 60 miles an hour without your seatbelt fastened. But when we’re hurtling through the air at 500 miles an hour and we turn off the seatbelt sign, half of you take your seatbelts off. But if we hit a little air pocket, your head will be on the ceiling. – Captain at a major US airline.

You can recline but be mindful of who’s behind you
If you’re going to recline your seat, please check behind you first. You have no idea how many laptops are broken every year by boorish passengers who slam their seat back with total disregard to what’s going on behind them. – John Nance.

We don’t wear our hats in the cockpit, by the way
On TV and in the comics, you always see these pilots with their hats on, and they have their headsets on over the hat, and that always makes us laugh. – Joe D’Eon

There’s a good reason for everything we ask you to do
We ask you to put up the window shade so the flight attendants can see outside in an emergency, to assess if one side is better for an evacuation. It also lets light into the cabin if it goes dark and helps passengers get oriented if the plane flips or rolls over. – Patrick Smith

We hear some dumb things
I am so tired of hearing “Oh my God, you’re a girl pilot.” When you see a black pilot, do you say “Oh my God, you’re a black pilot”? –Pilot for a US regional carrier. 

Leave flip-flops in your luggage
I always tell my kids to travel in sturdy shoes. If you have to evacuate and your flip-flops fall off, there you are standing on the hot tarmac or in the weeds in your bare feet. – Joe D’Eon

We do have control of the temperature
Cold on the airplane? Tell your flight attendant. We’re in a constant battle with them over the temperature. They’re moving all the time, up and down the aisles, so they are always calling and saying, “Turn up the air.” But most passengers I know are freezing. – Captain at a major US carrier. 

Here’s the truth about airline jobs:
You don’t have as much time off as your neighbours think you have, you don’t make as much money as your relatives think you make, and you don’t have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can’t believe they pay me to do this. – Commercial US pilot

Some airline lingo:

  • Blue juice: The water in the lavatory toilet. “There’s no blue juice in the lav.”
  • Crotch watch: The required check to make sure all passengers have their seatbelts fastened. Also: “groin scan.”
  • Crumb crunchers: Kids. “We’ve got a lot of crumb crunchers on this flight.”
  • Deadheading: When an airline employee flies as a passenger for company business.
  • Gate lice: The people who gather around the gate right before boarding so they can be first on the plane. “Oh, the gate lice are thick today.”
  • George: Autopilot. I’ll let George take over.”
  • Landing lips: Female passengers put on their “landing lips” when they use their lipstick just before landing.
  • Pax: Passengers.
  • Spinners: Passengers who get on late and don’t have a seat assignment, so they spin around looking for a seat.
  • Two-for-one special: The plane touches down on landing, bounces up, then touches down again.
  • Working the village: Working in coach.

Don’t ask for directions
I may be in uniform, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best person to ask for directions in the airport. We’re in so many airports that we usually have no idea. – Pilot for a regional US carrier.

We sleep in the cockpit
Do pilots sleep in [the cockpit]? Definitely. Sometimes it’s just a ten-minute catnap, but it happens. – John Greaves. They should try these 7 surprising ways to get more sleep.

We don’t dress up for cargo flights
One time I rode in the jump seat of a 747 freighter, which carries cargo, not passengers. As soon as the doors closed, the first officer went in back and put on a bathrobe and slippers. No kidding. He said, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear a tie for a bunch of boxes.’ – Tech pilot at a US regional airline

Don’t complain
Remember this before you complain about the cost of a ticket: fares today are about the same as they were in the 1980s. – Patrick Smith. Haven’t had enough? Here are 13 more things airlines won’t tell you.

This article appeared on Reader's Digest.