This Is What Those Pings You Hear on Airplanes Actually Mean

You won't want to sleep through those chimes anymore after reading this.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you might have grown accustomed to (and honestly slept through!) the various sounds that chime overhead on an airplane. But what do all those pings mean, anyway? Turns out, you should really be paying more attention to the signals—and here’s why.

The dings and pings will typically let you know when you should stay seated and when you can move around the cabin, which it’s why it’s good to know the best time to get up and use the plane bathroom. But, according to Scott Keyes, Founder and CEO of Scott’s Cheap Flights, airline pilots and crews also use the sounds to communicate with each other. “Each airline has its own internal language for what specific chimes mean, and they can vary by length, pitch, and repetition,” Keyes told Reader’s Digest. “Think of it as a 30,000-foot morse code.” Interesting, sure… but now we want to break the code.

Keyes shares that the different noises can mean any of the following things: “The seatbelt light is now on or off, a specific passenger needs assistance, turbulence is upcoming, more refreshments are needed, or that the plane is at a certain altitude” are just some of the examples he provides. But he admits that the chimes’ exact meanings vary from airline to airline. And, of course, airplane chimes are only some of the common airplane sights and sounds that we’re curious about.

Qantas Airways also divulged some of their cabin crew lingo. If you hear a high-low “ding-dong” chime on a Qantas plane, you’ll know that the staff wants to get each other’s attention. But don’t worry: These calls are usually made for non-emergencies, like checking to see if the other side of the cabin has soda or pretzel refills. On the other hand, captain or crew members use a triple low chime for priority messages like warning the flight attendants of bumpy skies ahead. That way, they can begin locking up their snack carts before the announcement is made to the rest of the passengers.

But no two airlines use the same chiming system; it’s just the standard one for Qantas Airways. Retired U.S. Airways captain John Cox gave his own inside scoop in a blog post for USA Today. According to him, two airplane chimes on a U.S. Airways flight signal that the plane is approaching 10,000 feet. Three or more chimes could indicate that there is a sick passenger in need of medical attention. And one chime can warn flight attendants of turbulence ahead—or that the plane captains would like a cup of coffee. But Keyes concludes that “airlines won’t divulge exactly what most communiques indicate, for security reasons,” so the exact meanings of the chimes will have to remain things airlines won’t tell you.

Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.