11 Questions About Airplane Cabins, Answered

Marcin Kilarski/iStock via Getty Images
Marcin Kilarski/iStock via Getty Images

Of the many uncomfortable places humans can find themselves, the airplane cabin is among the most common—and puzzling. These high-speed cylinders can cross the globe, but the price is stuffy air, peculiar design choices, and strange amenities. If you’ve ever found yourself trapped on a long flight, and curious about why the seats are blue or why cabins are so cold, keep reading.

1. Why don’t airplane seat belts have shoulder straps?

An airplane seat belt is pictured
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We’ll get the more obvious question out of the way: Yes, in the highly unlikely event of a serious plane crash, a seat belt is not likely to make a difference in mortality rates. The belts are really in place to keep passengers from being injured during turbulence, which can cause loosely seated travelers to bump their heads on the overhead compartments or walls. (According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 234 accidents involving turbulence from 1980 to 2008, with almost 300 serious injuries and three fatalities. Of the latter, two were not wearing seat belts.)

The bigger mystery is why airplane belts aren’t more like car seat belts, which might prevent people from bumping their head on the seat in front of them. The reason has to do with the environment. For a shoulder harness to work, the belt would have to be secured either to the cabin wall, which is not as sturdy as a car frame, or the seat. If it was attached to the seat, modifications would have to be made that would increase the plane’s overall weight. Planes are also unlikely to experience side collisions, which is where shoulder harnesses would work best.

The belts also have what’s called a lift-lever instead of a button release. That’s in case an object in the cabin falls and accidentally presses the button.

Those old-school buckles have one additional advantage. They’re cheap, saving airlines money—savings they pass on to you, the customer. (Just kidding. They probably don’t do that.)

2. Why are airplane bathrooms so small?

An airplane bathroom is pictured
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The phone booth-sized lavatories on planes are actually getting smaller. A popular new model dubbed the 737 Advanced Lavatory being installed in nearly half of all new aircraft increases non-pooping cabin space by 7 inches. The push for shrinking bathrooms isn’t actually greed or a need to stuff in more seats. It’s a move by airlines to allow for more leg and reclining room—however sparse—for existing seats. And yes, it could be worse. Early aviators pooped in cardboard boxes.

3. Why are airplane cabins so cold?

A woman is pictured sleeping in an airplane
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If you think you’ve gotten as comfortable as you’re likely to get in your seat, you may find a cold front moving in. Following take-off, when air conditioning is turned off to conserve fuel, airplane cabins can become notoriously chilly. Believe it or not, airlines keep it cool for your health. Pressurized cabins combined with warmer temperatures can increase passengers' risk of hypoxia, a condition in which body tissue doesn’t get enough oxygen and fainting can result. (Oxygen is decreased at high altitudes, so cabins are pressurized.) Turning down the thermostat can help prevent passengers from passing out. Passengers are also likely to feel colder because they’re sedentary and can't warm up by moving around.

4. Why is airplane food so bad?

A tray of airplane food is pictured
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When you can get better meal options at a gas station, you know something is very wrong with airplane food. The bland concoctions served in cabins are the unfortunate result of preparation, storage, and environmental limitations. Meals are frozen and then thawed in flight. That’s because a cabin pressurized to an altitude of 6000 to 8000 feet above sea level (even when the cruising altitude is about 40,000 feet) makes for a less-than-ideal fresh food preparation space.

But isn’t serving up a mostly frozen menu what fast food restaurants seem to do well? Maybe, but the difference is that airlines need to serve hundreds of hungry customers at once. To keep lingering meals from drying out, they’re often drowning in sauces. Combine that with dry cabin air suppressing our sense of smell and reducing our ability to taste sweet and salty flavors, and you have a recipe for gastronomical disaster.

5. Why is tomato juice so popular on flights?

A cup of tomato juice on an airplane serving tray is pictured
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In addition to water, soda, and more intoxicating options, cans of tomato juice seem to be a surprisingly popular option on flights. That’s because the same dry air that affects our sense of smell and makes the food taste off can actually improve tomato juice’s flavor. The savory umami of the juice is unaffected by the cabin environment, making the option stand out in an otherwise bland menu.

6. Why are so many airplane seats blue?

Airplane seats are pictured
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Not all plane seats are blue, but odds are good you’ve encountered more than one blue-colored cabin in your travels. Blame sloppy passengers. Unlike bright or dark colors, blue does a good job of hiding stains, blemishes, and other damage, making it a perfect tone for airlines who don’t want to replace seats on a regular basis. Psychologically, blue is also soothing to passengers who might have a little travel anxiety.

7. Why do airplane windows have those tiny holes?

An airplane window hole is pictured
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We know why airplane windows are round: Squared-off windows tend to take on too much stress in a pressurized cabin, a fact airlines noted in the 1950s following an investigation into several accidents. The design also incorporates three window panes, which is where that tiny little hole comes in. The first pane on the plane’s exterior takes on the structural burden of pressurization. The middle pane is a back-up in case the first pane fails. The third pane closest to the passenger is there to prevent scratches and damage to the middle pane. The hole is in the middle to help regulate the air pressure between the cabin and the outer and middle panes, leaving the full force of the outside pressure to exert itself on the exterior pane only. That way, if the window gives out, you'll still have the middle pane as a back-up. It also wicks out moisture to keep the window free from fogging.

8. Why do some airplane seats have a triangle above them?

A pair of hands is pictured making a triangle shape
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Look around a cabin and you might see a triangle pasted on the wall near a row of seats. No, this is not for members of secret societies. The markers are there to help crew members identify windows where the plane’s wings are the most visible in the event they need to inspect them for damage, ice, or other concerns.

9. What do those chimes over the airplane’s intercom really mean?

An airplane cabin is pictured
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Ding. Ding. At times being in an airplane can feel like being in an elevator. While some of those chimes are meant to call your attention to seat belt alerts or landing notifications, not all of them are intended for passengers. Airplanes use a kind of code similar to a ring tone to call from one section of the cabin to another—to ask about food supplies, for example. Different chimes can mean different things. A three-note chime might tell flight attendants that turbulence is ahead, alerting them ahead of passengers. The code varies by plane, so try not to read too much into it. If you hear just one note, though, it might be the pilot asking for some coffee.

10. Why do your ears pop during a flight?

A man is pictured holding his ears on an airplane
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It goes back to cabin pressure. As a plane ascends, lowering the pressure in the cabin, pressure in the inner ear changes. Force is applied to the eardrum and you’ll feel like something is squeezing your head until the Eustachian tubes connecting your ears to your nose and throat relax, letting air in and equalizing the pressure.

11. Why don’t airplane oxygen mask bags inflate?

A flight attendant is pictured demonstrating an oxygen mask
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The vaunted airplane oxygen mask demonstration always causes some concern over its rather inert plastic bag, which attendants often warn “may not inflate” once the masks descend over the passengers in the event of an emergency. If it doesn’t inflate, what good is it? The masks are continuous-flow, which means oxygen produced by chemicals in the overhead compartment will flow through the mask regardless of the person inhaling or exhaling. Excess oxygen is stored in the bag until it's needed. It also prevents panicky passengers from seeing their bags "deflate" while others appear full.

Lítla Dímun: The Smallest of the Faroe Islands Has Its Very Own Cloud

While some islands are known for their unusual geography or unique history, Lítla Dímun is notable for its weather. The island, which is the smallest of Denmark's Faroe Islands chain, is often capped by a lens-shaped cloud, making it resemble a scene from a fairytale.

According to Mental Floss's own Kerry Wolfe writing for Atlas Obscura, the cloud floating above Lítla Dímun is a lenticular cloud. This type of cloud forms when moist air flows over a protruding geological feature, like a mountain top. When the wind moving up the landmass hits the air current directly above it, a sort of wave is created on the downwind side of the mountain. The moist air falling down this wave evaporates and then condenses into a large, flying-saucer-shaped cloud atop the mountain peak as a result.

Another factor that makes Lítla Dímun distinct is that it's the only one of the 18 main Faroe Islands without human inhabitants. Visitors to the mystical location will instead find a thriving population of sheep. Originally, Lítla Dímun was home to a group of feral sheep likely dating back to the Neolithic era. But they were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Domesticated sheep were introduced there around the same time, and today, farmers visit the island once a year to round up their flocks.

One of the few signs of human life are the ropes farmers use to scale the cliff faces bordering the island. Even if you have rock-climbing skills, Lítla Dímun may be dangerous to visit. A boat ride to the rocky shore is only possible when the surrounding sea is calm.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

15 Amazing Places You Can Tour Virtually

AndrewSoundarajan/iStock via Getty Images Plus.
AndrewSoundarajan/iStock via Getty Images Plus.

From National Parks to the Louvre, you can check out these 15 different places from the comfort of your own home.

1. The National Museum of Natural History

Outside of the Smithsonian.

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Take a look around the stunning exhibits at this Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. You have the option to tour past exhibits like “Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine” or “Iceland Revealed,” along with what's currently on display.

2. The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal.
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You can explore the exterior of the famous Indian mausoleum with Air Pano’s virtual tour. It allows you to easily jump to different vantage points of the Taj Mahal and see them from a bird’s eye view.

3. The Great Wall of China


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Constructing this massive piece of architecture took more than 1800 years. You can visit this historical landmark without leaving your couch by heading here.

4. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Outside of the Getty Museum
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Google Arts & Culture lets you take a peek inside this art museum in Los Angeles. With the zoom feature, you can probably get even closer to the artwork than if you were to visit the Getty in person.

5. The Louvre

Le Louvre at night.
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Looking at fine art has never been so simple. On the Louvre’s website you can choose to explore several different exhibits such as “The Advent of the Artist,” “Remains of the Louvre’s Moat,” and more.

6. The Vatican's Museums

The Vatican
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Now you can skip the crowds and still tour inside the Vatican. This virtual tour allows you to see the landmark's museums such as the Pio Clementino, Raphael's Rooms, and others.

7. The Sistine Chapel

A painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
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You can't take a photo of the Sistine Chapel in person—it's not allowed—but you can tour it virtually. Click here, and look skyward to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

8. Route 66

A photo of Route 66.
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Route 66 was the United States’s first all-weather highway, running from Illinois to California. Now you can get your kicks on Google Street View of Route 66.

9. The Colosseum

The Colosseum
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Are you not entertained? You will be as you click around this virtual tour of this ancient arena.

10. Palace of Versailles

Inside the Palace of Versailles.

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Constructed in 1624, the Palace of Versailles contains countless rooms you could easily spend hours walking through. And now you can spend hours leisurely meandering through the halls—without the crowds—by heading here.

11. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A volcano in a National Park in Hawaii.
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If you’ve ever wanted to journey to two of the world's most active volcanoes, now is your chance. After a short video introduction, you can take a guided virtual tour of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

12. Stonehenge

A view of Stonehenge.
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There's still a lot of mystery surrounding Stonehenge, a prehistoric stone monument near Wiltshire, England, whose construction dates back to 3000 CE. When you visit the site virtually, you can get a close-up view of the stones, zoom in on carvings, and watch educational videos about them.

13. The Musée d’Orsay

Musée D'Orsay in Paris.
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Built in an old railway station, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is the place to go to look at work by Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, and many other artists. Check out their work by heading here.

14. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
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If you’re sitting on your couch, do yourself a favor and take a minute to roam around Yosemite National Park. You can hike to the top of Half Dome, see Nevada Falls, and even star gaze in the park.

15. The Pyramids

The pyramids
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Survey the awe-inspiring achievement of the Great Pyramids at Giza from above.

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