When airline pilot and writer Patrick Smith started taking questions from the traveling public through his Salon.com series, Ask the Pilot, he was amazed by how many people were terrified of turbulence.
"It's uncomfortable; it's annoying, but no: it's absolutely not going to rip the wings off the airplane," he told Greater Boston's guest host Gail Huff, who said it was her biggest fear when flying.
"People have this idea during rough air that the plane is pitching and rolling and dropping hundreds or thousands of feet. If you were in the cockpit, even during pretty rough air, you would see the altimeter twitch maybe 20 feet either way."
Smith recently published a new book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. On Greater Boston, he attempted to pacify common fears and frustrations by explaining what planes can withstand, why airlines charge customers the way they do and how the industry has changed over the past few decades.
Smith's Take: Lighting strikes aren't that dangerous
Airplanes are built with lighting strikes in mind, which stands to reason when you consider that they're in the air and sometimes in close proximity to bad weather. And if there is a strike, no, the energy doesn't come barreling in an electric fireball down the aisle killing people. It's safely discharged overboard. The average airplane is hit by lighting about once every two years. I've been on planes that have been struck at least a few times, and almost always, the result is at most some little superficial damage, but nothing internal.
Baggage fees spread out the cost of traveling
Airlines love these ancillary fees. Passengers hate them. Airlines call it "unbundling," and there's a segment in chapter 7 about this. I have mixed feelings about this. I think in some ways, unbundling is a good idea because it helps spread out the cost: certain people can pay for certain things they want, and other people don't have to pay for things they don't want. But it used to be that these perks, if you want to call them that, were included in the price of the airfare for everybody.
Fares used to be a lot higher
There's this idea that the golden age of air travel is long past, and I think that in a lot of ways, the golden age of air travel is right now, first and foremost because it's so affordable to fly, and that did not used to be the case. Air fares today are about 50 percent of what they were three decades ago, and that includes adding in, factoring in these fees everybody hates.
Turning off your cell phone is a social statement
Different devices are restricted for different reasons. With laptop computers, for example, the reason you're not supposed to have them out during takeoff and landing is because a laptop is a piece of luggage and a potential projectile. Maybe it's just me, but I don't want to be hit by somebody's MacBook going 180 miles per hour. With phones, it's unlikely, it's very unlikely, that interference is going to result, especially with modern planes because they're shielded with cell phone interference in mind. But it is possible, and there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that phones can interfere, but ultimately, I think the phones thing is going to come down to being a social issue rather than a technological issue. Do we really want to be sitting on a plane with 200 people talking on their phones at the same time? I certainly don't.
Air travel is astonishingly safe, even with more planes flying
That wasn't a prediction back 20, 30 years ago, when people looked ahead, saw this growth coming and said," We better watch out." Especially in developing countries like China and Brazil, where air travel has really grown exponentially, people were predicting crashes on the order of once a week in these places, and that didn't happen. And it didn't happen because of crew training, better technology and the collaborative efforts of government and airlines all working together, and as a result, the last data that I saw said that worldwide air travel was about seven times safer than it was 25 years ago.