Common Myths About Flying You Shouldn't Believe

Airplane flying in the air

Because the dudes on MythBusters can't spend every episode disproving outrageous claims people make about airplanes, we reached out to pilot, air travel blogger, and author of Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith, to help us bust 11 of the most popular flying myths.

airplane bathroom toilet
Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

Planes dump human waste while flying

This one has been around for ages -- and with no merit. It’s simply impossible. The tanks hold waste until the aircraft lands, and they are emptied by the most badass dudes at the airport. However, in an incident years ago, a defective valve allowed toilet water to leak out into the airstream, forming a kind of high-altitude icicle along the side of the plane. “The ice eventually broke free and was sucked into an engine, causing the entire engine to separate from the aircraft,” Smith says. "This gave rise to the phrase 'When the sh*t hits the turbofan.'"

Cabin air is full of germs

You would think a small, enclosed space with any sick person would lead to a hotbed of germs, right? I mean, we did show you this gross video of a sneeze spreading through a plane and point out how flying is destroying your health.

However, the air on planes is surprisingly clean. It's plumbed in from the compressor sections of the engines, Smith says, and while some of it's recycled, it all runs through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. But beware of surfaces. "If you get sick after flying, there’s a greater chance that it’s from something you touched -- a lavatory handle, your armrest, or tray table -- rather than something you breathed in." And if you want to know exactly what NOT to touch, here are the eight dirtiest parts of the plane.

airline flight attendant with food and drink cart
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You get more intoxicated when flying

Only if you step up the number of drinks you order! Or start mixing your own crazy cocktails at altitude. Many people claim they feel more intoxicated while drinking in flight, mostly because the pressurized air makes the cabin feel like you're sitting between 5,000 and 8,000ft above sea level. It's like drinking in Denver. But there’s absolutely no difference in a person's blood-alcohol content.

You can open the door on a plane

We already addressed this one in detail here, but lo and behold, the myths continues! No doubt everyone on board would jump into action if they saw a rogue passenger messing with the door handle, but fear not, there’s no getting it open. Not by hand, at least. When the plane is pressurized in flight, the door is locked against the fuselage by thousands of pounds of pressure. "You’d need a hydraulic jack [to pry it open], and TSA doesn’t allow those," Smith says.

airplane flying in the sky

Planes pretty much fly themselves at this point

This one is, understandably, one of the most frustrating myths for pilots. It's a misunderstanding about what autopilot and cockpit automation are actually capable of, and how pilots interact with those controls. Smith compares it to the technology in a surgeon’s operating room: while it makes certain tasks easier and safer, it does not come even remotely close to getting rid of the need for the surgeon. "A plane can no more fly itself than an operating room can perform an organ transplant." It's that simple. Ninety-nine percent of landings, and 100% of takeoffs, are still performed manually, with either the captain or first officer (co-pilot) physically at the controls.

One hole in the plane will suck everything (and everyone) out

Not quite -- thanks for nothing, Hollywood! It all depends on the size of the hole, what caused it, and the level of cabin pressurization (i.e., the plane's altitude) at the time, Smith says. An explosive decompression -- a fuselage rupture caused by a structural failure or a bomb -- could indeed "suck out" passengers. The good news is that the vast majority of decompressions are gradual and perfectly manageable. Now if you want to know the mystery behind those tiny holes in airplane windows, you'll want to read this.

flight attendant demonstrating oxygen mask
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You can get high from oxygen masks

Again, thanks to Hollywood (specifically Brad Pitt in Fight Club), some people believe that oxygen masks are there to "get you high" and keep you calm. Not for breathing clean oxygen. Obviously, science dictates otherwise: if the plane loses cabin pressure, people will pass out when the air becomes thin and oxygen-poor. The masks are necessary until the pilot can bring the plane to an altitude where passengers can breathe normally again. It's kinda that simple.

You can get stuck on a plane toilet

Your body would truly have to form a perfect seal to the seat, which we're hoping none of you are trying to do on a public, tiny airplane toilet. This is one that Adam Savage tested on MythBusters, and while he managed a "significant" suction, he got up no problem.

woman on an airplane with her cellphone

Cellphones interfere with the airplane's electronic systems

The fact that everybody can use their cellphones in airplane mode during takeoff and landing now pretty much seems to have put this question to rest, right? And Smith agrees, the answer is probably no, wireless transmission from cellphones doesn't interfere, but the FAA would still rather play it safe than sorry.

The airplane’s electronic systems are heavily shielded, but if the shielding is old or the system is faulty, there could be a problem. Then again, if it was of bigger concern, cabin crew would inspect or collect phones before take off, considering how many of them are left on during flights. "If this really was a recipe for disaster, I think we’d know about it by now," Smith says.

Planes have an onboard corpse locker in case somebody dies in flight

Myth? Urban legend? Actually, it was true for a while -- but only on Singapore Airlines' fleet of A340-500 airplanes that flew between Singapore and Newark until 2013. Those planes did, in fact, have a corpse compartment. But they're now out of service, and no other commercial carrier flies planes with those lockers. That said, if you're wondering what does happen when somebody dies on a plane, you'd probably be pretty surprised/mortified.

plane tickets with credit card

Flying is getting more expensive

Actually, when adjusted for inflation, the average cost of an airline ticket has declined about 50% over the past three decades. Ticket prices are well below what they were 30 or 40 years ago. "In my parents' generation it cost several thousand dollars in today's money to travel to Europe," Smith says. "Even coast-to-coast trips were something relatively few could afford. The idea of air travel as a form of mass transit, with college kids jetting home for a long weekend or to Mexico for spring break, is very new."

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Nadia Imafidon is Kansas-based magazine editor, freelance writer, and singer in soul/funk band Sharp 9. Follow her on Twitter at @nadia_imafidon.