In terms of crashing and burning, flying is the safest form of travel. Statistically, anyway.
But let’s face it, if the plane is going down, your chance of surviving and telling an exciting story to your loved ones isn’t so hot.
So there’s that.
There are plenty of other ways for a flight to go bad – let’s call them risks and dangers – but these can be overhyped too, or often go misunderstood. And sometimes they’re not true at all.
You’ll die of cancer caused by radiation from the security screening
No you won’t. A 2013 report commissioned by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine found that people absorb “less radiation from an airport X-ray backscatter scanner than they do while standing in line waiting for the scan itself,” according to a statement from the association.
It found that “full-body scanners deliver a radiation dose equivalent to what a standard man receives every 1.8 minutes on the ground, or every 12 seconds during an airplane flight”.
Natural sources of radiation include radon in the air, cosmic radiation from space, and the decay of potassium in the human body. However …
You’ll die of gastro because of the germs on those trays you put your phone in at the security gate
Yes, yes you might. Or at least get a bad cold. In 2018, Finnish researchers found the filthiest place in an airport wasn’t the toilet, but the plastic security bins.
In their paper – Deposition of respiratory virus pathogens on frequently touched surfaces at airports – where they swabbed multiple sites for cold and flu viruses, they found “of the surfaces tested, plastic security screening trays appeared to pose the highest potential risk, and handling these is almost inevitable for all embarking passengers.”
You’re more than 100 times likely to catch a cold on a plane than on the ground.
This is an oft-quoted statistic. And it’s wrong. In fact, you’re 113 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research.
The dry air (which causes a drop in the production of mucus that works to sneeze out airborne pathogens) and the close proximity of hundreds of people who become smellier by the hour make it seem inevitable that we’ll catch something while en route to the other side of the world.
But a neat 2018 study of passenger movement and behaviour on 10 transcontinental flights in the US cautiously concluded “there is low probability of direct transmission [of illness] to passengers not seated in close proximity to an infectious passenger”.
On the other hand, the potential for international air travel to spread dangerous viruses is still being reckoned with.
A clot will develop in your leg and travel to your lungs and kill you.
Deep vein thrombosis leading to pulmonary embolism: yes, it happens.
It’s also known as “economy class syndrome” because it’s caused by sitting in the one spot, unmoving, for hours at a time.
Get up and walk around – and when the flight attendant urges you to return to your seat, just explain the measly leg space provided is a death trap.
You’ll die of cancer from the cosmic radiation that’s warming the coffee on your tray table
For sure, if you’re flying to Mars. and there’s no protective atmosphere to deflect cosmic rays from stars, including our sun. In that scenario, you risk cataracts, cancer and potential heart ailments.
If you’re flying to London at 35,000 feet, then yes, your exposure to cosmic radiation will be higher than it is on the ground because at high altitude the air gets thinner, meaning there are fewer molecules deflecting those killer rays.
Of course, there’s something romantic and space-age in a death-bed conversation that begins, “Well, I guess the cosmic radiation finally got me”.
And it could. But you’d have to travel a lot – 18 million miles, according to a fab explainer at The Conversation – to increase your cancer risk by 0.5 a per cent. Even then you’d have to be unlucky. But that’s cancer for you.
You’ll die of poisoning from being bitten by snakes on a plane
Maybe. In 2009, on a flight out of Alice Springs, four baby pythons escaped on a passenger plane … and were never seen again.
In 2012, on an Egypt Air flight from Cairo, an Egyptian cobra escaped from the carry-on luggage of a reptile trader. The Egyptian cobra is also known as the asp, the snake said to have killed Cleopatra.
In 2017, passengers on an Ravn Alaska flight found a snake sleeping under a bag near the back of the plane.
— BBC Newsbeat (@BBCNewsbeat) March 22, 2017
Your head will end up in your underpants because of bad turbulence.
You bet. And the risk of this happening is on the rise, because of climate change.
A recent study, published in the Advances in Atmospheric Sciences journal, predicts that doubling CO2 levels will triple incidents of severe turbulence – the sort that could throw passengers around the cabin like rag-dolls if they don’t keep their seat belts fastened.
Why? Because wind shear strength in the atmospheric jet streams increases with global warming.
There have been instances where one or two passengers have been killed during an encounter with turbulence – and instances where planes have been brought down and everybody died.