How Realistic Is 'Airplane!'? We Asked Very Confused Aviation Experts.
A movie like Airplane! would probably never fly today (puns!), which is a damn shame. Aside from it being a satirical masterpiece starring the late Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in both his athletic and piloting prime, it's truly the mother of all slapstick comedies.
From planes crashing into terminals and pilots named Roger, Victor, and Clarence, to an old woman fluent in jive and the shit literally hitting the fan -- Airplane! couldn't be more outrageous. But could any of the things in the movie actually happen? To find out, we turned to former pilots, flight crews, and even surgeons, and asked them to weigh in on some of the movie's most ridiculous scenes... which are, essentially, all of them.
We know what you're thinking: surely, you can't be serious. We are serious. And don't call us Shirley.
Loading and unloading zone announcements: can you have two people make the same announcement? Can you air your personal baggage (puns!) over the PA system?
“Airport announcements are typically all pre-recorded,” a veteran flight attendant said. “There would never be two people arguing over the PA. What were they fighting about?”
Can Jehovah's Witnesses/religious groups solicit services in an airport terminal and/or hand out free flowers?
Depends on the airport, but the California Supreme Court upheld a ban on Hare Krishnas doing so at LAX in 2010. The US Supreme Court also ruled on the issue in 1992.
Do you have to let people know if you have a prosthetic leg or arm when you're going through security?
According to TSA: passengers with prostheses can be screened without removing them. The way screening will be conducted depends on the passenger’s level of ability and whether or not he or she voluntarily chooses to remove his or her prosthetic during screening.The passenger should inform the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) of the existence of a prosthetic, his or her ability, and of any need for assistance before screening begins. Passengers can use TSA’s Notification Card to communicate discreetly with security officers. However, showing this card or other medical documentation will not exempt a passenger from additional screening when necessary.
Do captains receive business calls on the white courtesy phones? Can you even put people on hold on those things? (Example quote: "Alright, give me Ham on five, hold the Mayo.")
“No, you can’t receive personal calls on courtesy phones,” a former pilot told us. “They were really for paging passengers.”
Are you able to ask if a specific flight attendant is on your flight? Are there privacy laws associated with that?
"I’ve never had someone ask for me personally,” one former Delta flight attendant said. “I don’t think nowadays you would be able to do that with security."
Can hearts actually hop on their own? If one lands on the floor, can it still be used in a transplant?
"This is an insane question,” a second-year surgical resident said. “It would be a case-by-case basis determination, like if the heart was punctured or contaminated in any way."
Can people on stretchers (with an IV) fly on a commercial flight?
According to one former flight attendant: “All passengers have to be in an actual seat."
Can you say goodbye to someone right next to the plane if you’re not flying?
“Non-passengers are never allowed on the jetway,” a veteran flight attendant told us. “Or by the plane, for that matter.”
Are you able to carry your own tray of drinks in first class? (Like the kid who brings coffee to the girl.)
"You can carry your own drink to another seat and sit next to someone else,” a current flight attendant said. “Not sure where you'd get a serving tray. I guess you could use your food tray if you still had it?"
Could people named Roger and Over ever be captains at the same time due to the potential for miscommunication?
“Ha, I don’t think you could discriminate on that alone,” laughed a retired airline pilot.
Can non-officials be in the cockpit when the plane is flying?
According to FAA regulations: the cockpit door is locked during flight, and only the flight crew may enter.
Can pilots/flight attendants bring people into the cockpit anymore?
“Sure! But only when the flight is grounded,” explained a current flight attendant I asked on a recent flight out of JFK. “You can visit when the doors are open, and the plane is parked at the jetway. We usually only allow visitors after the flight, when the pilots aren't as busy. And the captain can always say no."
How long can you hang out up there?
“Typically, just a couple minutes -- quick peek upon de-boarding the aircraft,” a former flight attendant said.
Can captains ask kids about nudity and/or gladiators?
[Laughs] “If they want to be thrown in jail, sure,” a retired captain said.
Can flight attendants just sit down in a seat next to a passenger?
"I’ve fallen into the aisle seat when we hit turbulence, and just stayed there until it passed,” a former PanAm flight attendant told us. “Otherwise, no, you wouldn't just pop down next to someone and start chatting away. We’re either on our feet, or in our designated seats."
Can you borrow things from passengers? (Example: a guitar from a nun)
“Borrow something? If it’s okay with the passenger, sure,” a retired flight attendant said. “But you’d have to check a guitar, too big for a carry-on.”
Do doctors ever correspond directly with the pilots about a passenger on the plane with a specific medical condition?
“Flight attendants would be the ones to alert the pilot to any medical or emergency situation while on board,” a retired American Airlines flight attendant said. “We would make an announcement over the PA for a doctor in-flight if something required special attention.”
How many eggs can you hold in your mouth?
Editor's Note: I tested this myself -- could only fit two.
How much face time, if any, do captains have with passengers. For instance, can doctors/passengers correspond with the captain directly when something is wrong? (... and ask things like: when do we land?)
This conversation actually happened:
Me: "Can I talk to the captain?"
Flight Attendant: "Why do you want to talk to the captain?"
Me: "I just want to know if I can."
Flight Attendant: [Terrified stare followed by complete silence]
So, I took that as a no.
Can one meal get an entire airplane sick?
We already told you how airplane food is made. And after more research, we discovered there was a specific instance on Valentine’s Day in 1992 that occurred on a flight to LA from Argentina, with a stopover in Lima, Peru. Contaminated shrimp entered the aircraft during the layover, causing a cholera outbreak with 76 sick passengers, including one death.
Were inflatable airline captains ever considered as a form or autopilot?
Said one veteran captain of over 30 years: “I’m not sure I know what that means.” Clearly, not a fan!
Could pilots smoke in the cockpit in 1980, when the film was released?
According to Wikipedia: "The U.S. ban on inflight smoking began with domestic flights of two hours or less in April 1988, extended to domestic flights of six hours or less in February 1990, and to all domestic and international flights in 2000. The 1990 ban applied only to the passengers and the cabin of the aircraft, and not the flight deck. Pilots were allowed to continue smoking after the 1990 ban due to concerns over potential flight safety issues related to nicotine withdrawal."
If the shit really hits the fan, do you have to get a new fan or can you just clean it?
No direct answer for this one, but general consensus: get a new fan.
Can someone with PTSD even be allowed to fly a plane again?
“There are a slew of tests, regulations, evaluations you’d have undergo to determine that,” a retired pilot said.
Can dispatch drink on the job?
“Are you serious?” -- a shocked, now-retired pilot.
What would happen if someone was openly doing drugs and/or drinking smuggled alcohol on a plane? What would happen if the captain is physically assaulted by someone on the plane?
"For anything like that, an illegal situation, we would inform the captain,” a veteran flight attendant explained. “Depending on the passenger's level of civility, the captain could put him or her in restraints and would most definitely call authorities to have them arrested once the plane lands."
Can reporters enter the airport's ground control to interview staff during an emergency?
“Absolutely not,” a former pilot said. “That is an official-only area."
Have people ever come ever down the baggage belt?
Yes, yes they have. And here is proof.
What happened to Leslie Nielsen?
He died in 2010, but continues to be hilarious in the afterlife. “Let 'er rip" is the epitaph on his gravestone.
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