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Flying myths and truths

The fear or unease of flying, also known as aviophobia, is a well-documented condition. It is thought that for many people it derives from the feeling that they have no control over their situation and/or similar fears such as claustrophobia. American actor Whoopi Goldberg and Dutch footballer-turned-coach Dennis Bergkamp have both spoken out about their aviophobia and the difficulties it imposes.

For others, though, the consternation and panic could be brought on by the many myths, conspiracy theories and urban legends about air travel that are passed off and accepted as conventional wisdom.

The Flexicover Team investigates five of flying's most stubborn fallacies.

Engine failure will cause the plane to drop out of the sky

  • The myth: Perhaps the most dangerous myth perpetuated by movies is the idea that it's 'Game Over!' if the engines fail, no matter what happens. Perhaps you’ve seen headlines like: "Passenger terror as jet fault causes plane to plummet mid-flight".
  • The truth: Where a plane appears to rapidly lose altitude, it’s more than likely to be a controlled descent made by the pilot to ensure the surrounding air has a higher oxygen content, in case of a loss of cabin pressure. All commercial aircraft are carefully designed to have a ‘gliding ratio’, so that for every 1ft they ‘fall’, they glide 15ft forward. So it’s physically impossible for them to drop like a stone even if all engines fail. Additionally, pilots undergo specific training to fly with any number of engines not working (including total failure) and they’ve been known to glide a full aircraft over 160km to a safety (known as a 'dead-stick' landing).

The air in planes spreads disease

  • The myth: Any germs that passengers breathe out are constantly pumped through the air supply and will infect everybody else on board.
  • The truth: Such concern over the cleanliness of the cabin's circulating air supply is largely unfounded and you’re no more likely to catch something when flying than you are from spending time in an office, classroom or the pub. Planes are fitted with sophisticated High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, described by manufacturers as being of 'hospital quality', which extract 94-99% of microbes before mixing with fresh air and pumping the air back into the cabin. A total changeover of air happens every two or four minutes – far more frequently than occurs in buildings.

Oxygen masks are to keep passengers calm before a crash

  • The myth: In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden famously says, "Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate."
  • The truth: In the event the cabin loses pressure at cruising altitudes, the air is very thin so the masks keep everyone breathing normally until the pilots can stabilise. The oxygen in the supply has no capacity to make you “high” – as evidenced by astronauts who have to spend several hours breathing pure oxygen before any spacewalk. We don’t recommend basing your opinions on the 'science' seen in many Hollywood movies.

The brace position

  • The myth: “We brace to make us feel like we have a chance of surviving”; “we brace to preserve our dental records, so we can be identified” or the totally horrific, “it’s the most efficient way to break your neck and therefore make your death instantaneous rather than dying in the resulting fireball”.
  • The truth: The brace position has been scientifically proven to reduce injury and save lives. In fact, back in 2012, a Channel 4 programme, The Plane Crash, conducted an experiment where they deliberately crash-landed a Boeing 727. Three dummies on board were arranged in various positions: one in the 'brace' position and with seat belt fastened, one with just the seat belt fastened and a third with neither. Experts concluded that the dummy in the brace position would’ve survived the impact (albeit with a probable broken leg). The one which wasn’t in the brace position would have severe head injuries or a broken neck, while the one not wearing a seatbelt would have died, crushed under the seat in front.

Opening a plane door while mid-flight is a real safety risk

  • The myth: If someone opens the door of an aircraft at 9150m (cruising altitude), everyone will be sucked out of the plane in the resulting decompression.
  • The truth: Commercial aircraft use a plug-type door which is larger than the opening and seals in such a way that it has to be pulled inwards and turned slightly before it can be opened outwards. Despite all the news stories about a passenger attempting to pry open plane doors during flight, it’s near-impossible for multiple people (let alone one person) to do so during flight. This is due to the difference in air pressure between the cabin and the air outside plus the fact that the doors seal tighter the higher the plane goes.

Wherever you’re flying off to this year, we at Flexicover, are committed to providing you the highest level of protection to ensure that you are safe and secure, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year when away. Safe travels!