Airplane Urban Legends Debunked

Chad Magiera, flickr

Have you ever worried about having your intestines sucked out by the powerful flush of an airline toilet? What about being hit by lightning on a flight? If you have, you're not alone. Airline rumors have circulated for decades and range from the outlandish (exploding breast implants) to the understandable (dying in a fiery collision). Believe it or not, your chances of dying-even if your plane crashes-are incredibly slim (the National Transportation Safety Board found that the survival rate for airplane crashes was a reassuring 95.7 percent). Here, we investigate, and debunk, some of the more popular airplane myths.

MYTH: Flushing While Sitting Can Suction You to the Toilet Seat
Of all the lavatory legends, this seems to have the most...traction. We all see and hear the powerful vacuum suction by which airplane toilets do their business (and do away with yours). Reuters once reported that a female passenger had filed a complaint against Scandinavian Airlines about being stuck to the seat; this was later discovered to be fictitious. The wildest variation claims your intestines could be "hoovered." That would certainly suck, but it just ain't gonna happen.

MYTH: Breast Implants Burst Above a Certain Altitude
False. According to some rumors, breast implants can "explode" in any atmosphere with extremely high or low air pressure, and flying high in the sky (or scuba diving in the deep) qualify. Implants do change subtly (you may even notice them temporarily expand in size), but if the atmospheric pressure were that smothering, everyone would combust. We'd worry more about whether fellow passengers think they're fake.

MYTH: Aircraft Toilets Often Discharge Waste When Flushed
Planes don't jettison sewage mid-flight. In fact, waste is collected in a secure holding tank which no plane crew can dump while in the air. The tank can only be discharged via an exterior valve by the ground crew. But the legend isn't total garbage. On rare occasions effluent does plunge earthward, usually due to a leak that permits waste (commingled with blue deodorizing fluid) to freeze on the plane's exterior. Gravity can cause those clumps, dubbed "Blue Ice" by the FAA, to fall. UFOs (Unidentified Flying Ordure) have occurred at least a dozen times in the past two decades, from Lynn, Massachusetts to Chino, California. And just to dispel another myth, those surprise strikes are unlikely to kill anyone.

MYTH: Killer Spiders Lurk Under Toilet Seats
The rumor of deadly spiders being found underneath airplane toilet seats has circulated for at least ten years. In August 1999, a prank e-mail masquerading as news warned of the arachnius gluteus or South American Blush Spider. Five people allegedly died either at or on flights to Chicago's Blare Airport, whereupon the Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB) discovered nests on four planes. Alas, there's no such spider (gluteus? c'mon people), airport, or aviation committee, nor does the medical journal that reported the story exist. To increase the tale's credibility, subsequent hoaxes used the name of an actual arachnid found in Asia, telamonia dimidiata. But not only would aircraft disinfectant likely kill the spiders, that species isn't toxic. The 2006 film Snakes on a Plane spawned several fresh Internet hoaxes about dangerous fauna, but so far none has reared its ugly head.

MYTH: You Can't Be Arrested for Going to the Potty
Well, this one depends on the circumstances, of course. Last spring, Joao Correa allegedly assaulted a Delta flight attendant who barred his way with the beverage cart and wouldn't permit him to use the Business Class restroom (yes, there's a rarely-enforced, vague TSA security directive that Economy passengers can't upgrade when the need arises). He was charged with assault after pulling her arm and arrested by the FBI upon landing. After spending two nights in jail, Correa acknowledged that he didn't handle the situation correctly and a deal was negotiated. It was a stipulation that most people found crappy, however, especially considering that first class travelers have gotten away with more egregious acts without landing in jail-an inebriated United Airlines passenger, for example, once became so incensed when attendants cut him off that he defecated on a serving cart and tracked his poop through the main cabin. He was banned from the airline for life, but didn't end up behind bars.

MYTH: Bathroom Water is Potable
The lav is hardly the most sanitary area anyway (don't go barefoot!): E. coli and other bacteria thrive all over the restroom. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal played taps over the tap water, collecting sample vials from 14 flights and reporting partying pathogens from Salmonella to insect eggs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's website, a 2004 study of 7,812 water samples sourced from 2,316 planes found 2.8 percent positive for total coliform bacteria; another analysis of 327 planes concluded contamination levels were 15 percent. Tanks typically aren't cleaned daily, which means that they could potentially pick up germs in any country they visit. Even scarier? Galley water may not be much better (individuals with suppressed immune systems should even avoid hot beverages). The EPA is drafting new rules for airplane water. Though the Air Transport Association advocacy group claims individual studies under EPA oversight found cleaner results, nearly 50 airlines signed water-testing protocol agreements. Still, bottled water may be the more reassuring, if not safer choice.

MYTH: Joining the Mile-High Club is Illegal
Well, yes and no. According to the Civil Aviation Authority no specific laws govern the matter, though Britain's 2004 Sexual Offences Act includes sex in a public lavatory. Even the Half-Mile Club (masturbation), depicted in the film The Hangover, is only technically illegal-at least in public view at your seat. The full act's legality depends on national laws (tricky when a plane traverses international skies), company policy, and the aircraft's place of registration, but you're potentially exposing yourself to public complaints and suits. Otherwise, generally the worst is that you're asked to stop (continue and you're subject to prosecution). Last spring during a London-Bangalore flight, U.K supermodel Sarah Hannon allegedly discovered boyfriend Daniel Melia getting his "bang on" with socialite Clare Irby. The latter two were charged with gross indecency. A copulating couple also "outraged public decency" on a 1999 American Airlines flight, netting a fine (banning is more likely). But that's an exception. Even though celebs such as Janet Jackson, Virgin mogul Richard Branson, and supposedly Ralph Fiennes are club members, cross this fantasy off your bucket list just in case. Besides, you risk physical injury pretzeling in those tiny bathrooms.

MYTH: Lightning Presents a Huge Danger of Crashing
While planes are more likely to be struck than earthbound objects (it's estimated that every plane will be struck by a bolt at least once a year), they're sturdier than people realize. The chances of lightning causing a crash are infinitesimal. Aircraft design safeguards include construction with aluminum (an excellent conductor that allows lightning's electricity to skim the shell harmlessly). Over 20 years ago, NASA data indicated that small electrical currents could affect a plane's electronic systems without damaging its structure. That research prompted FAA regulations mandating integrated lightning protection for the electronic systems, fuel lines and tanks.

MYTH: Birds Can't Cause Serious Accidents
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's heroics aside, birds fly into engines more commonly than people realize. While fatalities are rare, the cost of damage is astronomical (roughly $600 million annually in the U.S. alone, much of it due to minor incidents like broken fan blades that aren't covered by airline insurance). The industry even coined an unofficial term: BASH (Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard). The FAA has received over 70,000 reports of bird strikes to civil aircraft in the past two decades; they're resulted in significant accidents for five large jets since 1975. Moreover, the risk has increased exponentially, aided by environmental legislation forming protected wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands and criminalizing killing endangered species, even when they pose a threat. Large commercial airliners can withstand avian impact but only to a point (birds over four pounds can cause serious problems). Fortunately, even when one engine is disabled, the auxiliary engines provide sufficient thrust to complete the flight.

MYTH: Everyone Dies in a Crash
We've all heard the hoary old one-liner, "I'm not afraid of flying, I'm afraid of crashing." The litany of disasters without survivors is blazingly engraved in memory. But studies find that media disproportionately cover major crashes, often sensationally: Fear sells. MIT statistics professor and leading aviation safety expert Arnold Barnett discovered that front-page coverage of airline accidents was 1,500 that of car accidents, fueling the irrational frenzy. He created a measurement, Q, representing death risk per random flight: It's just one in 90 million. A National Transportation Safety Board study analyzed accident results between 1983 and 2000. Of the 53,487 people involved, 51,207 survived: a survival rate of 95.7 percent. Even the worst incidents (involving fire, injuries, and/or substantial damage) yielded a 76.6 percent survival rate. Best-selling author and former television news honcho Ben Sherwood, author of the recently published The Survivor's Club calls passenger fatalism the "Myth of Hopelessness." If you assume you're going to die, you don't take potentially life-saving precautions - like reading the safety briefing cards. The European Transport Safety Council determined that 40% of worldwide plane fatalities occurred in survivable situations. Lesson? You won't process new information in a panic, so before cranking up your iPod and getting dead drunk, prep your brain first.

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