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Telegraph / Life - Entertain

15 surprising things you didn't know about long-haul flights

A recent Channel 5 documentary, Secret Life of the Long-Haul Flight, followed a Qantas journey from London to Sydney - and uncovered a few lesser-known facts about flying.

1. There’s a secret bedroom

If you thought there wasn't enough space on a plane for a secret bedroom where cabin crew can catch 40 winks, you’d be wrong. Aircraft used for long-haul flights typically have a small compartment where flight attendants are able to nap, read a book, or simply hide from passive aggressive customers who've had one too many G&Ts. Accessed via an unassuming door in the cockpit, the quarters usually consist of bunks, or even business class seats, and sometimes a separate bathroom. Qantas has 12 beds, including one tiny “Harry Potter bunk”, on its A380s.

“It’s like one big slumber party in here,” jokes a crew member. It can get cold, however, so hot water bottles are a must.

2. There might be a Rhino in the cargo hold

Cats and dogs are regularly transported in the hold (Qantas carries 65,000 pets a year, and cabin crew say they can sometimes hear barking below), but far larger animals are taken on board too. Philip Knowles of JCS Livestock explains: “Every day of the year, you could be sitting there on a plane and below you don’t realise there are literally half a dozen animals. It’s not just cats or dogs, but exotics as well.

“The largest animal I’ve moved was a greater one-horned rhinoceros.”

3. 40,000 items are replaced after each flight

On a Qantas A380, that is. This includes 70 meal carts, 2,500 glasses, and 5,000 pieces of cutlery.

Revealed: The surprising secrets to making plane food taste better

4. When a passenger is late, it causes chaos

What happens if you check in at the airport but fail to get to the gate in time? The plane simply takes off without you, right? Not quite. If the passenger has luggage on board, then this must be retrieved before the plane can leave. Qantas usually starts the hunt for an AWOL passenger’s luggage 15 minutes before departure - and will even call their mobile in a last-ditch attempt to track them down and avoid a costly delay. It has been estimated that flight delays cost the airline industry $8 billion a year, much of it due to increased spending on crews, fuel and maintenance.

5. There’s probably something wrong with your plane

Sensors constantly relay information about planes in the air to teams on the ground - and small problems are common. The Qantas flight on Channel 5’s documentary was found to have a “few niggles”, but nothing serious.

David Parton, an Air Traffic Control engineering duty manager, explained: “All aircraft carry some minor defects. It’s like a car - the ashtray may be full or the window may not wind down properly, or something like that.”

If there’s a serious problem, those monitoring the feeds can pick up a phone and talk directly to the pilots - though they won’t interrupt a “critical phase” of the flight such as take-off and landing.

6. One billion plane meals are served each year

Qantas alone serves 7.5 million meals on its long-haul flights - that’s 400,000 in first class, 2 million in business class and 5 million in economy.

The meals are prepared in vast kitchens on the ground. At one catering firm in London, used by Qantas, 105 chefs produce 31,000 meals a day, the documentary says.

As Telegraph Travel has explained before, at high altitudes our taste buds simply don’t work properly. The low humidity dries out our nasal passages, and the air pressure desensitises our taste buds, which is why airlines often opt for salty stews or spicy curries. Airlines planning a new menu will often taste food and wine on board a flight before clearing it for public consumption, because of the variation in taste. Some airlines install sealed rooms in their kitchens room to replicate the experience of eating in the sky.

7. The cabin crew have secret codewords

“When we talk about Tom Cruise on the aircraft, we’re not talking about the famous movie star,” says a Qantas flight attendant. “We are talking about tea and coffee. How do you put them on the trolley? Tea then coffee. Tom Cruise.”

We’ve previously published a glossary of cabin crew jargon (explaining everything from “arm and crosscheck” and “doors to manual” to the slightly quirkier “plonkey kits” and “gashbags”), while easyJet recently revealed the secret hand signals its staff use to communicate with one another on board.

8. Toilets are cleaned pretty frequently

About every half hour, according to Qantas, gloves are donned and the loos are cleaned and restocked. Keep an eye out for the changeover - it’s probably the nicest time to relieve yourself in the sky. There’s only one worse job, according to flight attendants: waking passengers up in the morning.

9. Upgrades do happen

One passenger on the Qantas flight got an upgrade to business class - which proves that the Holy Grail of air travel does exist. She was flying solo, which helps. Other tips for getting an upgrade? Choose a busy route, be a regular customer, have a genuine reason (height, pregnancy, honeymoon, faulty seat or entertainment system, etc) - or simply ask nicely.

10. Passengers make some odd requests

Marriage proposals aren’t uncommon, according to one Qantas employee.

Meanwhile, Beth Windsor, a former flight attendant, told Telegraph Travel last year: “We’ve seen everything. Mid-flight strip-teases, mothers putting their babies in overhead lockers, sanitary pads doubling up as eye masks - it's all in a day's work.”

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11. Flying behind an A380 can be very dangerous

“Wake turbulence” or “jet wash” describes the unstable air that a plane leaves behind. And the A380, the world’s largest passenger plane, creates a lot of it. “It hangs behind the aircraft for a period of time,” explains the documentary. “We put an envelope around the aircraft - 1,000 feet below and, for a superjumbo, six nautical miles behind. We don’t want anything in that envelope. If you’re quite close to the wake turbulence coming off a superjumbo, and you’re in a light plane, like a Cessna, it could flip the aircraft.” 

What causes turbulence, and is it dangerous?

12. The autopilot does most of the work

“There’s no point denying that the autopilot does most of the work,” Sam Bray, a Monarch pilot, told Telegraph Travel earlier this year. “On a regular flight the autopilot does around 90 per cent of the flying.” Pilots usually handle the landing, and the captain in charge of the Qantas flight confirmed it is the hardest - but most satisfying - part of the job.

The confessions of an airline pilot

13. Toilets are NOT emptied in the air

As confirmed in the Channel 5 documentary, planes do not dump human waste at 35,000 feet.

“There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during flight,” explains Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel - a fact that seemingly dismisses the concerns of the aforementioned Indian army general. “At the end of a flight, the blue fluid, along with your contributions to it, are vacuumed into a tank on the back of a truck. (The truck driver’s job is even lousier than the co-pilot’s, but it pays better.)

“The driver then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot... In truth I don’t know what he does with it. Time to start a new urban legend.”

14. Planes get dirtier than you think - and cleaning them saves money

There’s no dirt in the air, but planes must be cleaned regularly. So how do they get so grubby?

“Bug, moths, the rubber coming off the tyres hitting the back of the aircraft, exhaust fumes, hydraulic leaks,” explains Kevin Dias, a member of the Qantas ground team.

And it’s not just for show. A clean aeroplane burns off significantly less fuel.  

15. Flying can make you ill

While it wasn’t addressed in Channel 5’s documentary, long-haul flights aren’t the best place to go if you’re worried about getting ill. In fact, research has suggested you’re 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane. Dr Richard Dawood, Telegraph Travel’s travel health expert, says the “virtually moisture-free” conditions inside a plane cabin increase your vulnerability to airborne infection. You're more susceptible to colds and respiratory infection, and viruses which are known to thrive in conditions of low-humidity.

“Coughing passengers can spread infection to those immediately around them, and in a small number of cases of more severe illnesses - such as TB [tuberculosis] - are known to have spread in this way,” said Dr Dawood.

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