Clean air, dirty screens, hidden outlets, and more little-known air travel secrets

boeing 3d printed ice 787
Here’s what people know today about air travel: long security lines, dirty airports, delays, and cramped cabins, among other things. But just when you thought you knew everything about flying, there’s plenty that never cross passengers’ minds.

Of course, there are many things airlines wouldn’t want you to know (the restroom door can be opened from the outside; just flip up the little “lavatory” or “no smoking” signs). But being aware can help you understand the nuances of flying – not that it’ll make air travel easier.

Here are nine unfamiliar things you may not know about technology and science in air travel.

Cash, credit, or bitcoin?

Poland’s flag carrier, LOT, announced on August 4 that it will accept the digital currency as one form of payment. The airline is using a payment service provider to handle bitcoin transactions, including the conversion of the purchase price based on the customer’s home currency.

“It‘s just the matter of time when payments with the online currency will become as popular as using credit cards today,” says Jiri Marek, LOT’s executive director of Sales and Distribution, in a statement. “We notice this potential.”

LOT isn’t the first: Latvia’s Air Baltic and Mexico’s TAR Airlines are also using bitcoins, according to CoinDesk, although LOT may be the first major carrier to do so. And in February, Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP), a payment network owned by major world airlines, announced it is working with processor Bitnet, which would allow customers to use bitcoins to pay for flights, via a third party. While no airline is actually handling bitcoins directly, the move continues to legitimize this new currency.

Food tastes bad? Use headphones

Does food taste funny when you fly? It’s no secret that airplane food is notoriously bad, but even premium-class grub or the gourmet stuff you bring on can taste a bit off. That’s not a fault of the airlines, but with our bodies. At high altitudes, our taste buds lose sensitivity to the sweet and salty aspects of food, which is one reason for the blandness. However, it doesn’t affect sourness, bitterness, or spiciness, so bringing a tiny jar of a favorite spice could elevate the sensation.

Another way is to put on some noise-cancelling headphones. It turns out that the loud engine noise can affect your palate. According to the BBC, a study found that loud background noise could further decrease the sensitivity to salt and sweet foods, as well as making them sound crunchier.

Check beneath your seat for power

Many airlines are upgrading their planes to accommodate the devices passengers are bringing on, such as smartphones and tablets via USB power ports. But even some older planes have power outlets – they’re just not as easy to find. Airlines don’t always promote them, but sometimes you can find an outlet underneath your seat. Before you fly, use Seatguru to check if the plane you’re flying on offers this amenity. Tip: Make sure you use a three-prong plug, as these outlets have difficulty keeping a two-prong adapter in place.

The air is clean, but the touchscreen isn’t

It’s a misconception that cabin air is dirty and a cause for illness. Studies have shown long ago that the recirculated air is as clean as any enclosed environment, and new technologies are making it even cleaner. But it’s other factors, namely your fellow passengers, which are causes. Remember that you’re essentially in a public space, and you’re touching things – seats, tray tables, lavatories, seatback displays – that others have, so there’s plenty of surface areas that could be laden with microbes.

United Airlines

Experts say an airplane cabin is no dirtier than any enclosed places with lots of people, which isn’t comforting. And recent news of flight crews suing over accusations of toxic air hasn’t helped. But some things you could do to limit the risks include keeping hands clean and covering yourself if you’re the one who’s sick. Dr. Mark Gendreau, an aviation medicine specialist at the Lahey Medical Center in Massachusetts, tells NPR that he uses bottled water to brush his teeth in the lavatory, and sets the ventilation above a seat to help deflect “bad” air from a nearby passenger.

You can use your phones whenever, not that you always should

Another misconception is that mobile devices could interfere with a plane’s systems, but there has been no significant evidence to support the theory. (It’s also ironic that airlines want you to turn phones off, yet you can use Wi-Fi.) Passengers have been trained to turn off our phones during takeoff and landing, though most of us don’t. The Federal Aviation Administration finally changed regulations in 2013, although bigger items still need to be stowed and you’re advised to turn on airplane mode (more to save battery than anything else).

A better reason for not using your phones is safety during takeoffs and landings. While playing Candy Crush may not interfere with the plane, it could hinder your ability to pay attention to what’s going on, in case of an emergency.

Modern planes, antiquated tech

The latest planes, like Boeing’s 787 and Airbus’ A350, use cutting-edge technologies like efficient engines and composite materials. But no matter how high-tech planes get, their pilots still rely on an antiquated air-traffic control system that hasn’t changed much since its inception in the 1930s. Essentially, with the help of radar, GPS, and air-to-ground communication, a plane is passed from one air traffic controller to another.

However, that’s finally about to change. A new satellite-based system, NextGen, would provide real-time information to pilots and controllers. The system, which is scheduled for deployment in 2016, would become more automated, can spot weather problems quickly, allow for more efficient takeoffs and landings, and put more planes in the air.

You may not like turbulence, but planes are OK with it

There’s nothing more unsettling than cruising relaxingly to your destination and then suddenly jolted by bumps. It’s scary, and nothing we say will ever alleviate the feeling. But, modern airplanes are designed to deal with turbulence. In fact, airplane wings are made to take on a lot of stress, flexing accordingly (planes can also fly on one engine, but that’s a different story). Pilots are usually aware of turbulence ahead, and wouldn’t fly into it if they deemed it unsafe; if it’s really bad, they’d try to avoid it (they try not to, because deviation from a route means late arrivals and more fuel burn).

The bad news is that turbulence will only become more prevalent. Due to climate change, researchers say increasing levels of carbon dioxide will also raise the occurrence of turbulence.

New-plane smell, used-plane price

When passengers see brand-new seats and fancy in-flight entertainment systems, they may think they are flying on a new plane. But it’s just one of the upgrades – ones that are noticeable to passengers, at least – that keep old planes looking fresh. The industry likes to focus on who’s buying the latest new jets, but most of the planes flying could be decades old. For instance, when Southwest wanted to ditch its fleet of Boeing 717s after acquiring AirTran, Delta swooped them up to use on its Shuttle routes. But don’t worry: Planes are constantly inspected and maintained.

Use Siri to find out what’s flying over you

Ever wonder which airliner is flying above you when you’re on the ground, or wondering if it’s a Boeing 777 or Airbus A330? Siri has a fun function that uses data from Wolfram Alpha to tell you what is flying overhead, which includes the airline, aircraft type, slant distance, flight number, altitude, and angle. Just say, “What planes are overhead,” and Siri will pull the results. A fun and informative tool for planespotters.


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