Nonsense From the Huffington Post

A HuffPo Exclusive: 16 Reasons to Read Something Else

April 3, 2014

WHENEVER you hear the words “alarming secrets” and “airline” in the same headline, you’d better break out the bullshit detector. Case in point, this March 31st piece from Huffington Post, a laundry list of vaguely scandalous tidbits, culled from a Reddit thread and billed as “16 Alarming Secrets That Will Change How You Feel About Flying.”

On April 2nd I received an email from the author, Suzy Strutner, inviting me to review the list. It had been receiving heavy traffic, she told me, and they wanted to make sure the information was correct. That was awfully good of them, I thought — although I had to wonder why they waited until after publication; the story went up on March 31st. No matter, I didn’t get the email until late in the day, and by the time I’d held my nose, dug through the list and submitted my critique, they were no longer interested. They’d gotten their fact-checking from other sources, Strutner informed me.

Who those sources might be I have no idea, but the list still needs an awful lot of work. At best it’s misleading and incomplete, and several of the assertions are outright false. Fact-checking, schmack-checking.

I attempted to leave a reader comment, but that was no-go as well. Few things in life are more evil and irritating than online comments sections that require a third-party, social media log-in, and HuffPo’s is no exception. And it doesn’t work: the system refuses to accept a log-in via my Google or Twitter accounts. Meanwhile I have a valid Huffington Post account, but that’s not good enough; the site’s interface requires you to double-verify your membership by way of Facebook. As a proud non-member of Facebook, I’m locked out of HuffoPo as well.

I won’t spend too much time with this, but here are some additions and corrections…


…A curious Reddit user asked airline professionals for behind-the-scenes details about flying we might not already know…

Maybe, though he or she didn’t ask me, and this is exactly what I’ve been writing about in my blogs, my columns, and in my book, for the past twelve years.


…Dim lights are meant to prepare you for evacuation, not sleep…When a plane is landing at night, they dim the interior lights in case you need to evacuate upon landing… your eyes are already adjusted to the darkness so you’ll be able to see better once outside the plane…

Close enough I guess. It’s for situational awareness, yes. I talk about this in more detail in chapter five of the book. And it’s takeoff and landing, not just landing.


…You’re breathing engine air…The air you breathe on an airplane is actually compressed air taken from the engines…A large portion (25% to 50%) is blown in the flightdeck [sic], the rest is for the passengers. The air leaves the airplane via a small hole in the back of the fuselage…

Oh my god, engine air! Of course, you could argue that the air coming from the air conditioner in your house is also coming from an “engine.” The reality here is complicated. Short version: cabin air is bled from the compressor sections of the engines, well upstream of the combustion sections, and there is no contact with fuel or combustion gases. Once in the cabin, a portion of the air is recirculated, but there’s a total change-over every few minutes, and all of the air is run through filters. Overall, cabin is air much cleaner than people think. Yes, the cockpit does receive a stronger flow than the rest of the cabin (we deserve it!), but those listed figures seem awfully high to me, and it varies by aircraft type. That “small hole in the back of the fuselage” is the pressurization outflow valve. You can call it a “hole,” I suppose, though on the plane I fly it’s more of a door, and it’s nearly the size of the iMac screen in front of me as I type this.


…Those blankets have NOT been washed…

Not at every airline, perhaps, but my carrier collects and launders its blankets after every flight.


…Also, there’s a solid chance your tray table has poo on it…

Come on, poo? Couldn’t you just have made the point that the tray tables aren’t cleaned as often as they could be, and leave it there?


…The captain is allowed to arrest you mid-flight…

Totally false.


…He is allowed to arrest people, write fines and even take the will of a dying passenger…

Totally false.


…You can be upgraded to first class after takeoff…

Very unlikely, especially on a long-haul international flight. And if so, maybe to business class. The more prestigious carriers don’t let anybody near one of their first class suites unless and until you’ve paid dearly for it.


…Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they’re grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that’s what they need to do…

Really, a hand-hold near an open door high above the tarmac, what a concept! They also help the cabin staff to brace themselves when operating the door. (What an odd entry, no? They were really scraping on this one.)


…If the oxygen masks drop down, you only have about 15 minutes of oxygen from the point of pulling them down. However, that is more than enough time for the pilot to take us to a lower altitude where you can breathe normally…

There are two pilots, always. But the gist of this is correct.


…Typically, as soon as the masks come down, the pilot descends to as low an altitude as possible and finds the nearest airport to land…

Not necessarily “as soon as the masks come down.” It would depend why they came down, and at what altitude. And the pilots would not descend to “as low an altitude as possible,” and, in all likelihood, they would not look for “the nearest airport to land.” It depends, and most depressurizations are not emergencies. See chapter two in my book for a description of a time when it happened to me.


…Generally speaking, getting to an altitude where you can breathe fairly normally takes between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the plane’s altitude when it depressurized…

False. It would be considerably faster.


…On night flights, we sometimes hold off on meal service as long as we can so that you’ll be asleep and we’ll have less to do…

I can’t speak for every airline, but I can’t imagine this on any self-respecting carrier. And on overnight flights, cabin staff are usually trained to serve meals as soon as possible after takeoff, so that passengers won’t be interrupted and will have more time for sleeping.


…The cabin crew doesn’t get paid until you take off… We get paid only when the wheels leave the ground. We don’t even get paid when we’re taxiing!…

I’ve never heard of a carrier paying its staff based on wheels up to wheels down, and I’ve worked at some pretty low-paying regionals over the years. Typically pilots and flight attendants are paid on what we call “block time,” which is basically gate to gate. We also have “duty rigs,” minimum monthly guarantees, etc. It can be complicated.


…Pilots get served separate meals in case one makes them sick…Two pilots are served different meals and cannot share, this is done in case of food poisoning…

False. This is usually just a recommendation when the policy exists at all. See chapter five in the book.


…Your flight attendants probably aren’t following cell phone rules … My sister is a flight attendant, she says after she tells everyone to turn off all electronics, she goes to the back and pulls our her phone and starts texting…

Your sister is a jerk. Again most cabin staff are more professional than this. In any case, unless the aircraft is specially equipped (rare in the U.S.), your mobile phone cannot hold a cellular signal unless you’re on the ground or flying very low. It’s true that you can sometimes text via Wi-Fi, but as cellular calling or texting from the air is more or less impossible.


Is it any wonder that people hold airlines in so much contempt? “Journalism” like this, of which there is little shortage, only nurtures that contempt. And why am I the only one who seems to care? The airlines don’t bother to respond, and good luck getting the FAA, the big pilots’ unions, or anybody else to take notice. As a result, misinformation keeps spreading, urban myths take deeper hold, and conspiracy theories gain undeserved credibility. And here I’m left, as they say, pissing into the wind.

I sent a version of the above corrections to Ms. Strutner. She didn’t reply, and the errors remain, meaning that hundreds, possibly even thousands of additional people will be reading things that are, in several cases, completely untrue. Apparently this is okay.


If you enjoyed this discussion, chances are you’ll love the new book.


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32 Responses to “Nonsense From the Huffington Post”
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  1. Brenda McNeely says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if a class was required to be taken before anyone had access to the internet? It’s very scary to me when I think about how much information, or “misinformation” is out there…right at the fingertips of so many who have never even considered notions such as: “Consider the source,” and how many folks just believe everything they read. It might not seem like a deal to many, but it is absolutely terrifying to think about the possible damage this has and will continue to create. Just think about it. Yes, we are self-destructive creatures.

  2. Frank says:

    Literally read the huffpo right before reading this. I’m so glad I thought to double check the information. I’ve been very interested in the oddities and historical precedent for so much that happens in the airline industry…and now I know where to get my anserrs!

  3. John Howley says:

    I so enjoyed your book and your blog entries. I was looking forward to your comments and corrections about 9525 and you didn’t disappoint. Thnaks for your excellent work on a topic of such great interest to many of us.

  4. Richard Finkelstein says:

    While my knowledge and experience can vouch for most of what is presented here and while I know firsthand how slippery HP is in such stories, there are a few items here in which what I and my friends have witnessed in person recently is counter to what is presented. Even though I do not fly often, on my second most recent flight; to Vegas in March, I sat in the last seat of the plane. One of the flight attendants sat across from me, while she madly surfed and texted on her phone during the period we were not to be using our phones. My best friend meanwhile flies frequently. She has performed on Broadway and in Films but is not a name recognized by the public. Still, she gets bumped up to first class all the time and for all sorts of reasons including her last flight where the airline sold her seat twice. Since her seat was already occupied and the flight was full they told her she would have to fly later but she was returning to NY for an audition. So they finagled, and managed to find two people in first class willing to take a later flight, and they bumped my friend and her brother to first class. In the past year I would say they bumped her up about 3 other times and often for some very mundaine reasons and often mid-flight.

  5. Vinny Noggin says:

    Bed bugs. Many airliner seats are infested.

  6. Damian says:

    Just as a point of sympathy… I’m a surgeon and intensive care specialist and these kinds of reports, (especially around end-of-life issues, vaccines and what happens in the OR) are a thorn in our sides too. Because our work continues regardless of the reports (people keep getting sick, just as they continue to travel by air), there is not much incentive for organizations to mount potentially damaging or expensive responses. They unfairly add quite a bit of complexity to already difficult situations and questions nonetheless.

  7. Larry says:

    10-20 minutes to get to a lower altitude? I was once on a cross country flight where someone collapsed and IIRC it only took 15 minutes to land the plane!

  8. Yo Moer says:

    …Engine Air…

    Yeah whoever wrote that, maybe should never turn on the AC/heater at home or car, or the electric fan in a hot day for that matter. They’d all be also considered Engine Air.

    …Also, there’s a solid chance your tray table has poo on it…

    And she should be aware the keyboard where she typed that has more bacteria and poo than a toilet seat.

    • Yo Moer says:

      Quoting from the article “I worked for Southwest as a flight attendant. Those blankets and pillows? Yeah, those just get refolded and stuffed back in the bins between flights. Only fresh ones I ever saw were on an originating first flight in the morning in a provisioning city. Also, if you have ever spread your peanuts on your tray and eaten, or really just touched your tray at all, you have more than likely ingested baby poo. I saw more dirty diapers laid out on those trays than food. And those trays, yeah, never saw them cleaned or sanitized once.”

      Because she never saw them cleaned or sanitized doesn’t mean other people don’t do that job. I’ve read or watched documentaries and there are crews of cleaners that come in inbetween flights or overnight to pickup the trash bags or in the lavatories, vacuum and clean the ailes and seats, replenish ammenities, etc. Just like housekeeping turns over rooms in a hotel inbetween check-outs and new guest arriving.

      But on the other hand yes, it would be nasty if you were on the same flight or the one after without some cleaners coming in after someone used a tray to place some dirty diapers.

    • Brenda McNeely says:


  9. Alex says:

    That’s a liberal tabloid site for ya. You should see the garbage your old stomping ground Salon is chruning out lately Patrick.

  10. Nicholas Robinson says:


    It seems to me these days all sorts of media have taken to using flying *anything* as a topic to get clicks. The endless parades of “10 Worst Airports” or “10 Things You Don’t Want To Know About Your Flight Attendant” . . . it’s just endless. The myth-spreading is so relentless, no wonder MH370 has provoked such a firestorm.

    Granted, before the Internet, there were few ways to propagate reams of bullshit, but imagine if TODAY a large airliner was hijacked by a gang of heavily armed terrorists and flown around the globe for two weeks straight (forget the exact incident, but I remember the poor captain’s name — John Testrake — and if I recall correctly, a passenger was murdered into the bargain.) (Oh, and if I’m not wrong, some of the hijackers are walking free as a bird as we speak — benificents of prisoner-swapping).

    If I’m wrong in the details, I’m not wrong in the incredibly horrific things that happened on major airliners during the 70s and 80s. How quickly we forget! If the Huffington Post, bless its pointed money-grubbing little head, started reminiscing about some of these horrors, well, maybe the flying public would TRULY have something to get alarmed about. MH370 is a tragedy, for sure, but if you ran through just *some* of the events that happened on planes before the Internet was around, I swear, the flying public would dwindle by half from sheer terror. 9/11 was just the final explosion in a decades-long runup of horrorshows on commercial airliners — trust me, *I* haven’t forgotten ANY of them and I know for sure YOU haven’t.

    And I’m stand-up proud of you for not being on Facebook — in this day and age the pressure, especially for a media entity such as yourself (you are, like it or not) the pressure to be on Twitter and Facebook must be enormous. Never cave. Both were invented for people with the attention spans of gnats on meth and the Huffington Post is one of those outfits who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    You keep skewering them; by god, you’re almost the last rational flying professional we have left.

  11. retiree says:

    but be sure to check for typos before posting

  12. retiree says:

    A sure sign that a writer doesn’t know a damn thing about airplanes is when he or she refers to “reverse thrusters”. Turn the page or change the station – don’t waster any more of your precious time.

  13. Marc says:

    Pretty much anything I read on the Huffington Post is BS, but I saw this list and just knew that you, Patrick, had to be somewhere reading it and wanting to pound your head on the nearest wall.

    I can relate somewhat. I work in IT and much of what my profession does is viewed as being some form of black magic. The fact that a giant metal tube with an ungodly weight to it can somehow fly through the air at hundreds of miles an hour and get us from point A to point B safely with a tiny fraction of a chance of things going horribly wrong doesn’t sit well with people. Likewise, the fact that a huge stream of ones and zeros can come together to form all of this doesn’t sit well in the minds of people either, so I feel your pain.

  14. Leslie in Oregon says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for all you do to provide accurate and complete information about the airline industry. You are not alone in caring about accuracy in that context, but you are in a unique position to be heard and taken as a credible source of information on the topic. Keep it up! From a former Pan Am purser and current lawyer with a passion for aviation

    • Nicholas Robinson says:

      Good golly, I love it when I hear from someone who actually worked for Pan Am.

      My dad worked for Pan Am from 1957 – bankruptcy, in Sales — I remember many times going to see him on the 48th floor of the Pan Am building. Howdy, stranger! Maybe you fixed me a drink on a flight from JFK to LHR.

      It was damn good, let me tell you!

  15. Eric_G says:

    The story with modern journalism is always the same. If it is a subject you are familiar with, you will quickly spot the factual (or worse) errors. Consider that every story is basically like that and you’ll learn to take the media for what it is, entertainment mixed with thinly disguised advertising, along with sports and weather. Even when they try to get it right, someone throws a red ball across the room and they all lose focus and chase after it, ignoring what was SO important a few minutes ago.

  16. John says:

    The will thing isn’t “totally” false. The Captain has the same capacity as anyone else to subscribe a will. Mind you, the fact that the plane will likely be flying around between jurisdictions raises interesting questions regarding whose “formalities of execution” law applies.

  17. […] In the current edition of his website, he launches a broad-based attack on the Huffington Post, which did an article entitled “16 Alarming Secrets That Will Change How You Will Feel About Flying.” I recommend you read the Huffpost article, and then look at what Smith has to say about it entitled “Nonsense from the Huffington Post.” […]

  18. Mark says:

    Unfortunately journalists do this to everything they don’t understand. Even those that sound like they have a clue. Actually, scratch that. Especially those that sound like they have a clue!

    I’m a 30 year veteran of the IT industry and I can’t bear to read articles on IT in the mainstream media (as opposed to the better technical media).

    My particular bête noir is Farhad Manjoo who unbelievably gets articles printed in the NY Times (inter alia). My recent favourite is his column on having two screens. Considering he just makes stuff up, a piece of paper and a crayon is all he needs.

    Then there is the Y2K “conspiracy” theorists. Don’t start me on those nutters!

    • Stu says:

      I agree on Manjoo and your other comments.
      The NY Times used to have David Pogue, who was knowledgeable, interesting, and would cheerfully accept corrections when he made an occasional error. He’s gone, along with Frank Rich and others who made the newspaper stand above the rest. Now, it’s not worth my time or money. Sad – so sad.

  19. Tim says:

    When I read this on HuffPo or whatever I thought “What would Patrick Smith say about this?” Glad you said something!

  20. EJLM says:


    Loved your book, and I come back here often to check up on things. Keep up the good work! I adore flying, it pains me to read so much nonsense in the media.

    By the way, I saw you (some weeks ago), giving your two cents regarding flight MH370, absolutely terrifc how you said what they were not expecting (safety, etc. ), took them off guard, I laughed seeing the way the reporter tried to cut you off again and again.

    Anyways, a job well done, congrats!

    (From Mexico)

  21. Joepa24 says:

    With rare exceptions, journalism in no longer practiced in the US. Our mainstream media is mostly dominated by hacks more interested in hype and entertainment all in the name of page clicks and ratings. I and many others, I assume, prefer to consume information from foreign sources, a lot of in excellent English.

    Keep them honest Patrick

  22. Callsign222 says:

    It’s been a real tough few weeks in the media. I can’t take it much longer… actually I can’t take it anymore. I’m done. The last straw was yesterday on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” There was a piece with DAL’s Anderson and Virgin ATLANTIC’s Branson, and I was butting my head on the dashboard and finally turned the radio off. Interviewer Robert Siegel kept misstating Virgin’s name by saying “Virgin Air” while both Anderson and Branson continued to use the Virgin Atlantic name. Then they got into a discussion on transponders in connection with Malaysia 370, with Siegel talking about the actual transponder in the flight deck and whining away on how it can be turned off, yada yada yada, and Branson and Anderson deftly (or ignorantly) turning the conversation to ELT’s, which they called Emergency Locator Transponders (in lieu of Transmitter). The whole thing was a mess, and had to turn it off.

    In terms of the HuffPo piece, I’m really intrigued about taking the last will and testament of the dying passenger. “The unfortunately late Mr. Business gave all his holdings to me.” I like it.

    Hang in there, Patrick. You are a unique voice of calm, rationality, and truth in the media storm. Keep lighting fires!

  23. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos says:

    Good on you, Patrick.

    You might enjoy my Huffpo article, “8 Reasons to Avoid Listicles”:

    I should’ve added inaccurate info as #9…

    • Stu says:

      I have learned from years of misery never to read an article that starts with, and sometimes even contains, a number.
      Whenever I forget my rule, I am sorry.

  24. Simon says:

    > …On night flights, we sometimes hold off on meal service as long
    > as we can so that you’ll be asleep and we’ll have less to do…

    A quality airline will actually make sure they serve quickly so their paying customers can get some rest in time.

    • Kyle McKenna says:

      A “quality” airline may do this, that, or the other thing, but the fact is that “quality” airlines can be counted on one (or at most two) hands.

      Would you consider BA to be one? The FAs on that airline do everything within their power to prevent pax from sleeping on TAs, and I’m talking Club World and First.

  25. Tomás says:

    This stuff sounds like it was written by Schiavo!
    Regarding pay: Back in the day, Gulfstream Int’l used to pay it’s captain’s (for the most part F/Os were unpaid) something called “Segment Pay” which the FOM defined as being “based upon the average historical en-route time.” Long taxis only cut into the potential you could earn each day, week, month and year. You didn’t get paid for it, so most guys shaved it away.