Airline pilots are trained to be attentive when they're on planes so that they will notice details that slip by the average passenger.
Some of these details have serious safety implications.
For the average person, air travel is an opportunity to sleep, work, read, or watch a movie with fewer distractions than you'd find on the ground.
But for airline pilots and aviation experts, the experience can be different. Pilots and experts are trained to be attentive on planes, so even when they don't have to fly the plane and can sit in the main cabin, they'll notice things that other passengers don't.
We interviewed two airline pilots and collected responses from a Quora thread to find out what pilots notice when they're flying in the main cabin.
Here's what they said:
What pilots notice when they fly as passengers
What pilots notice when they fly as passengers
Most passengers are likely to be concerned about turbulence, but according to Tanya Gatlin, a pilot and associate professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, it's not as bad as most think. "It's not something that's going to cause an accident or is even a factor to safety," she said in a phone interview with Business Insider.
Instead, Gatlin is worried about ice. When necessary, ice and snow are removed from a plane before it takes off, and the plane is coated in materials that will prevent ice from building up while it's in the air — for a limited amount of time.
The difficulty can come when the plane turns down its engine while preparing to land.
"We're coming down in a very short amount of distance and there's no way we can get down that fast without the power being at idle," she said.
This means the engines don't generate as much heat as when they're taking off, which increases the chance that ice will build up on the plane and make a smooth landing difficult.
Scents can be one of the strongest indicators that something's wrong on a plane, as they can quickly hint at problems with the engine or fuel-storage systems.
"Sounds are always useful, but a passenger cabin often is pretty isolated from any sounds that might be indicative of a problem.Smells, on the other hand, travel around quite freely, and some (e.g., fuel, hydraulic fluid, superheated bleed air) are pretty distinctive," Tom Farrier, a former director of safety for the Air Transport Association, wrote on Quora.
The angle that light comes in through the window
Experienced pilots know that a sudden change in the angle of the light that comes through a cabin window can be the first sign that the pilot is changing course.
"An unexpected, significant shift in the angle of the Sun can be your first sign that a course change is being made," Farrier wrote.
Communication about delays
Many air travelers don't expect clear and timely explanations when their flight is delayed, but they should, according to Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of the air travel blog Ask the Pilot.
"I get very frustrated when I'm on a plane and there's a delay or the plane just seems to stop on a taxiway and sit there for 25 minutes for no reason, and nothing is said. Or something is said in such a vague way that it only makes people more frustrated," he said in a phone interview with Business Insider.
But it's not that the reasons for delays are too complicated for passengers to understand.
"It's always something that everybody can understand if you just use the right language and are patient enough and timely enough with it," Smith said.
The plane's landing routine
Pilots and flight attendants have precisely timed routines they use to get ready for landing. The announcements to put your seat and tray table in an upright position are familiar to most air travelers, but some pilots can predict the timing of this routine within a few seconds.
"Most passengers don’t notice the level-off that often occurs when the airplane is about to enter the approach environment or descend below 10,000 feet," Hachi Ko wrote on Quora. "When I feel that little level-off for the airplane to slow, I imagine the pilots going through the checklist, and at the right time, I turn to my companion and go 'Ding!' I'm within 4 or 5 seconds well over 50% of the time and it freaks them out."
Where emergency exits are located
Many passengers tune out during safety briefings, but pilots understand how important they can be. In the event of a crash landing, you might not have the time or ability to figure out where the exits are.
"For one thing, I always look around to find the nearest emergency exit. Then I count the number of seats between me and that exit," John Chesire wrote on Quora. "I do this so if ever necessary, I can in the dark, or under water, or if there is smoke, or if upside down, I know beforehand where the exit is, and I can blindly count the number of seats by touch to reach that emergency exit row, because I have counted them."
Scents can be one of the strongest indicators that something's wrong on a plane, as they can quickly hint at problems with the engine or fuel storage systems.
"Sounds are always useful, but a passenger cabin often is pretty isolated from any sounds that might be indicative of a problem. Smells, on the other hand, travel around quite freely, and some (e.g., fuel, hydraulic fluid, superheated bleed air) are pretty distinctive," Tom Farrier, who claims to be a former director of safety for the Air Transport Association, wrote on Quora.
Related: Thoughts your flight attendant has
22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you
22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you
1. Want to start off on the wrong foot with me?
Put your carry-on in a full overhead bin, leave it sticking out six inches, then take your seat at the window and wait for someone else (me!) to come along and solve the physics problem you just created. By the way, this is what your flight attendant first notices about you.
2. Yes, passengers are incredibly rude...
..but stealing a beer, cursing out passengers, and jumping out of a plane is not the way to handle it. You disarm an unruly passenger by introducing yourself, asking his name, and saying something like ‘I’ve been incredibly nice to you for three hours. Why are you treating me like this?’ Generally, that gets the other passengers on your side—and sometimes they’ll even applaud.
3. We don't have a boyfriend in every city.
And our median age these days is 44.
4. An all-too-common scenario?
I hand you a cup of coffee and say, ‘Cream and sugar?’ You say, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Cream and sugar?’ You say, ‘What?’ Come on, people. What do you think we’re going to ask after we’ve handed you coffee? Your favorite color? (But in all honesty, you probably shouldn't order coffee on a plane.)
5. If you’re traveling with a small child and you keep hearing bells, bells, and more bells...
If you’re diabetic, bring syringes. If you have high blood pressure, don’t forget your medication. That way, I’m not trying to make a diaper out of a sanitary pad and a pillowcase or asking over the intercom if someone has a spare inhaler. Here are some other little flying etiquette rules you know.
8. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, there are other people on the airplane besides you.
So don’t clip your toenails, snore with wild abandon, or do any type of personal business under a blanket!
9. If you’re traveling overseas, do yourself a favor and bring a pen.
You would not believe how many people travel without one, and you need one to fill out the immigration forms. I carry some, but I can’t carry 200. Here are some more tips to know before your next flight.
10. Passengers are always coming up to me and tattling on each other.
‘Can you tell him to put his seat up?’ ‘She won’t share the armrest.’ What am I, a preschool teacher?
11. I hate working flights to destinations like Vail and West Palm Beach.
The passengers all think they’re in first class even if they’re not. They don’t do what we ask. And the overhead bins are full of their mink coats.
12. Do you really have to go to the bathroom right now, while we’re wrestling a 250-pound food cart down the aisle?
You can’t wait 90 seconds for us to pass?
13. Is it that difficult to say hello and goodbye?
I mean it. No one likes to be poked, but it’s even worse on the plane because you’re sitting down and we’re not, so it’s usually in a very personal area. You would never grab a waitress if you wanted ketchup or a fork, would you?
16. I don’t care if you want to be in the mile-high club, keep your clothes on.
Who decided the mile-high club was something that everyone wants to do anyway? It’s cramped and dirty in those bathrooms.
17. If you hear us paging for a doctor...
...or see us running around with oxygen, defibrillators, and first aid kits, that’s not the right time to ask for a blanket or a Diet Coke. Here are some other pet peeves of flight attendants.
18. The only place you are allowed to pee...
...on the airplane is in the lavatory. Period.
19. Don’t ask us if it’s OK to use the lavatories on the ground.
The answer is always yes. Do you think what goes into the toilet just dumps out onto the tarmac?
20. You really expect me to take your soggy Kleenex?
Or your kid’s fully loaded diaper? I’ll be right back with gloves.
21. Sure, I don’t mind waiting while you scour the seatback pocket
...and the floor for candy wrappers and other garbage, then place them in my bag one by one. I only have 150 other passengers to serve.
22. I’m sorry it’s taking forever to get you a wheelchair.
That’s one thing you can’t blame the airline for. The wheelchair service is subcontracted to the cities we fly into, and it’s obviously not a top priority for many of them. Want more insider air travel info? These are the secrets your airplane pilot won't tell you.