The Secrets Airlines Don’t Want You to Know

These days, air travel is nearly as common as taking a bus or train, but some mysteries still persist 35,000 feet in the air. Airlines don’t want you to know certain things about flying, but these secrets can help you be an informed passenger. For example, they dim the cabin lights for an alarming reason — not to help you sleep (see page 10).

1. Your smartphone won’t bring down the plane

Woman using smartphone inside an airplane

Even though it’s probably OK if you don’t, you should still put your smartphone in airplane mode. | iStock.com/yuran-78

A cell phone has never caused a plane to crash.

Flight attendants ask everyone to switch their phones to airplane mode before takeoff. But the real reason you should do so involves interference. Kenny Kirchoff of Boeing’s Electromagnetic Interference Lab, tells CNN the issue is that interference from electronic devices can affect aircraft systems, not crash planes.

Next: The first thing you should do when your flight gets canceled

2. Flight canceled? Get on the phone immediately

Travelers boarding an airplane

Standing in a long line with other angry travelers isn’t helpful. | Comstock/iStock/Getty Images

A call to customer service is often faster than speaking with a gate agent face-to-face.

If the airline cancels your flight, get in line at the gate or ticket counter. But while you wait, call customer service, too. Those agents can reschedule you without the long line of fellow disgruntled passengers. Give your record locator as soon as you get a human on the line.

“Seconds matter here … While you are talking to us, we can literally see that the next plane only has 10 seats left and see the number dropping as other agents snatch those seats up for whoever is on the phone with them,” The Huffington Post says.

Next: Flight attendants have access to a ton of tools.

3. Surprising objects are hidden on every airplane

emergency exit door in airplane

Many planes have a crowbar instead of an axe. | Artfoliophoto/iStock/Getty Images

These objects protect passengers from others and themselves.

Flight attendants have access to a pair of hidden handcuffs, so they can restrain anyone causing a disturbance. All planes are still equipped with ashtrays in the bathrooms. Although smoking is banned on all flights, airlines know a rulebreaker is less likely to throw a cigarette butt in the trash — where it’ll cause a fire — when they can use an ashtray.

Additionally, airplanes must have a defibrillator (in case of a heart attack), supplemental oxygen, a fire extinguisher, and an axe or a crowbar (so the crew can break through panels to fight an electrical fire).

Next: There’s always an exit

4. The airline can’t keep you on a delayed plane

Woman reading magazine and listening to music on an airplane

If your flight is delayed, the airline can’t trap you. | iStock.com/kasto80

Regulations limit the time an airline can keep passengers on an aircraft.

It feels like forever when you’re stuck on a delayed plane. But the government instituted a rule that “airlines cannot keep passengers stuck on planes without going anywhere for longer than three hours.” Unfortunately, “the tarmac delay rule increased flight cancellations,” says the Chicago Tribune. Why? Airlines don’t want to be fined for holding passengers on planes too long. So being “trapped” on a plane may not be such a bad thing.

Next: You can fall asleep on a plane, but the pilot can’t, right?

5. Your pilot is more tired than you think

Pilot in cockpit

The pilot probably hasn’t had as much sleep as you imagine. | iStock.com/Matus Duda

Pilots often log far more work hours than their employers realize.

Pilots can only be in the air for up to eight hours in a 24-hour cycle. However, this flight time doesn’t include ground delays, preflight checks, or any maintenance that occurs while the pilot is in the cockpit. So they could actually log 14-hour days in some cases, HowStuffWorks explains.

Pilots are also required to get eight hours of “rest.” But the pilot doesn’t spend all of that time sleeping. It also involves driving to and from the airport, eating, and preparing for the next flight. The result? Your pilot may not be as well-rested as you imagine.

Next: What to do if an airline loses your bag

6. The airline may owe you a lot of money for your lost bag

Two suitcases on the luggage belt in the airport

Did your luggage go missing? The airline owes you. | iStock.com/Nomadsoul1

If you can prove the contents of your lost bag, the airline may have to compensate you a lot more.

Did you fly with a bag of expensive ski gear or pack a tux in your checked suitcase, only to have that bag disappear? Airlines are notoriously stingy with payouts. However, the airline may owe you more money. For U.S. travel, the payout for lost or delayed luggage can be up to $3,300. But you have to show documentation of the value of the items in the bag.

Next: Sometimes you can’t prevent an overbooked flight.

7. Get bumped? Ask for cash, not a voucher

Airplane tickets, sunglasses, keys, and a cellphone and passport are laid out on a flat wooden surface

Is your flight overbooked? Don’t give up your seat without a fight for cash. | iStock.com/mactrunk

Vouchers have expiration dates and other restrictions.

Nearly every flight is overbooked these days. Planes to be at least 85% full to make a profit, and this must account for missed connections and no-shows. When a gate agent offers vouchers for an overbooked flight, you can ask for cash or a check instead. You can use cash for anything, as opposed to a voucher that has restrictions and black-out dates.

Only about 10% of people get bumped against their will. If that happens, the airline will have to pay up (unless it can still get you to your destination on time.) If you’re involuntarily delayed for two hours or more, the Department of Transportation requires that you’re compensated up to 400% of your ticket value. Compensation is capped at $1,300.

Next: A sleepy (and sexual) place on your plane

8. Your flight attendants may sneak in a nap

Flight attendants relax

The sleeping compartments are right above passengers on some Boeing models. | Flight attendants | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Flight attendants sleep — and allegedly have sex — in hidden bedrooms on Boeing 777 and 787 airplanes.

Look for an inconspicuous door near the front of the plane next time you fly; this door often leads to a hidden sleeping area with beds. Attendants need rest on longer flights too, so they’ll sneak in a nap there. The beds are in sleeping compartments above seated passengers on many Boeing airplanes. Some of the more high-end sleeping areas even have entertainment areas, storage space, and pajamas for the flight attendants.

Next: How to know you’re in imminent danger

9. If flight crew uses certain code words, you’re in serious trouble

Pilot in cockpit

Your pilot might use a certain code over the intercom. | iStock/Getty Images

Prepare for an emergency if you hear “7500,” “7600,” or “7700.”

“7500” may be the worst code to hear; it indicates that the plane has been hijacked, or that hijacking is imminent. A pilot will say “7600” if they experience a radio failure or loss of communication. And “7700” means there’s a general emergency. During emergencies, a major issue is the pilot’s failure to properly communicate the crisis at hand, according to MzeroA.com, a leading flight training source.

Next: The real (alarming) reason why flight attendants dim the cabin lights

10. Flight attendants don’t dim the cabin lights to relax you

Tray on back of airplane seat

Locking your tray table is one small thing you can do to keep everyone safe. | iStock.com/Jannoon028

The dim cabin lights ensure your eyes adjust to the darkness.

If something goes wrong, you’ll want to be able to see in the dark, a former flight attendant wrote for The Huffington Post. Plus, window shades need to remain open, so the crew can see outside of the plane (and firefighters can see inside in the event of a crash). But there’s more to airline procedures. You need to lock your tray table and return your seat to its upright position, so people sitting past you can evacuate in an emergency.

Next: Your best chance of getting upgraded to first class

11. You can still get a free upgrade if you know what to do

Business woman at international airport sitting and drinking coffee

Upgrades have become rare. But in specific circumstances, you can still get a free upgrade to a better seat. | iStock.com/romrodinka

It’s hard to get a free upgrade, but it can happen if you ask directly and politely.

An upgrade is well worth it, especially if you’re flying internationally. As Boarding Area reports, “The only circumstance under which you’ll consistently see free upgrades is when it’s for operational reasons, like a cabin being oversold, and them needing to upgrade people.”

Don’t lose hope; increase your chances instead. Travel at quiet times, Skyscanner says. Sign up for airline loyalty programs. Arrive early. Dress nicely. And speak politely to the gate agents.

Next: You don’t have to pay for expensive food.

12. You’re allowed to take your own meal onto the plane

Airplane seats

If you aren’t a fan of overpriced airplane food, you can pack your own instead. | iStock.com

There are no formal limits on how much food you can take on board.

The New York Times advised, “The practical thing to do is pack your own meal.” You can bring as much food in your carry-on as you want. Just keep some rules in mind. TSA’s regulation on liquids includes yogurt and hummus. They need to be in clear bags to go through security. Consider odors and allergies as you pack. A tuna sandwich won’t make you popular with fellow passengers.

Next: The trick to buying tickets for your whole family

13. Don’t buy group tickets at the same time

A man pulls up an airline ticket site on his laptop

Planning to buy multiple tickets all at once? Don’t. Airline policies will make them more expensive.  | iStock.com/milindri

Multiple tickets may cost more than single tickets.

Booking a getaway with a group? You may think buying all tickets at once will simplify the process and even save you money. However, Reader’s Digest explains why customers who book multiple tickets might pay more. Say you want to purchase four tickets, but the airline only has three at a discounted fare. Most people would assume you’d get three at a discount and the fourth at full price. But in reality, the airline will bump up all four tickets to the higher price bracket.

Next: Timing is everything when you buy and fly.

14. Buy on certain days and fly on certain days

Airfare tickets on a laptop

Want a great deal on airfare? You can easily achieve that by shopping at the right place, at the right time. | iStock.com/scanrail

The cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Fewer business clients travel on Tuesdays and Saturdays. But you should buy your tickets on the cheapest days of the week, Tuesday through Thursday, HowStuffWorks suggests.

Next: The dirtiest place on a plane

15. Packing hand sanitizer is crucial

Scientist analyzing dish with virus and bacteria cells

Have you ever gotten sick after a flight? You can blame all the germs on board. | iStock.com/solarseven

Many surfaces in a plane have more germs than a toilet seat.

Packing hand sanitizer is worth it. According to one flight attendant, tray tables get cleaned once per day. The crew only replaces blankets and pillows for the first flight of the day, if at all. And yes, you can blame airplane air for making you sick. Pressurized cabin air lacks moisture, HowStuffWorks explains. The low humidity level dries out your nose’s mucous membranes, making you more susceptible to cold germs.

Next: A flight attendant’s real responsibilities

16. Flight attendants are doing a lot more than pouring cocktails

Flight attendants walk around the airplane with a gift cart

You don’t have to be in on many airline secrets to realize that flight attendants do a lot more than pour you a drink. | Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images

Flight attendants are actually highly trained with major responsibilities.

Pouring you a drink isn’t the most important part of a flight attendant’s job. Their main responsibility is safety. One flight attendant shared the true training with The Huffington Post:

We are trained to do CPR, use EpiPens, AED, and defibrillators, we take self-defense courses and practice what to do in case someone gets unruly or tries to take over the plane, we are there to guard the cockpit so people don’t get in during the flight, along with what to do in an evacuation. The correct way to position all of the passengers for a emergency landing, taking the emergency exit doors off of the planes, ushering everyone out while being the last ones out ourselves.

Next: The scoop on nonrefundable tickets

17. You can get a refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket

man on phone looking at flight board

Even if you bought a nonrefundable ticket, you can still get your money back. | iStock.com

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to “allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty.”

Airfare Watchdog reports that “in order to take advantage of the 24-hour cancel or change rule, it’s best to book directly with airlines, either online or by phone, rather than through third-party websites.” So even after you’ve booked a flight, you have a day to think about it and make sure you want to keep the reservation.

Next: Did you know you sign a contract when you fly?

18. Every airline has a contract with you

Businessman signing papers

One of the airline secrets few passengers seem to know? You can check the contract of carriage to know what to expect. | iStock.com/BernardaSv

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to have a contract with every passenger.

Each airline actually has a “contract of carriage” with you as a passenger. These documents spell out policies involving flight cancellations, refunds, fare changes, and carry-on baggage policies. Although you didn’t sign on any dotted line, these stipulations are technically what you agree to when you purchase a ticket. Curious? Check out the contracts for United, American, and Delta.