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13 Things Airlines Don’t Want to Tell You (but Every Flier Should Know)

Updated: Jun. 06, 2024

From how to get the best seats to disgusting airplane habits to avoid, get these insider secrets to a safer, cheaper flight.

Landing airplane
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Here’s what a safety demo doesn’t say:

We dim cabin lights at night so your eyes are adjusted to the dark if you need to find a way out. We put up tray tables at takeoff and landing so passengers next to you can escape if needed. And you should open your window shade, so if there’s a crash, firefighters can see inside. Make sure you never do these things on an airplane and that you understand the new airplane travel rules for the coronavirus era.

An airplane being refueled on the tarmac
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We’re extremely stingy about fuel

It’s expensive to carry because it’s heavy, so keeping levels low saves us a lot of money. But it also means if there’s rough weather or an unexpected delay, we’re more likely to make an emergency landing because we’re running out of gas. If you find that shocking, take a look at these 50 airline facts you’ve always been curious about.

Businessman getting his boarding pass at check-in counter
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If your flight is overbooked…

… don’t accept the first $200 voucher we offer. We typically keep increasing the offer until we have enough volunteers willing to give up their seats. If we don’t get enough volunteers and have to bump you involuntarily, insist on cash compensation instead (many airlines will write you a check at the airport). Department of Transportation rules say you’re entitled to as much as $1,300 in cash, depending on your ticket price and how long you are delayed.

Further, in the time of COVID-19, many airlines are running with limited capacity. Potential passengers are utilizing flexible booking policies that allow for refunds and a last-minute change of plans. This means the airline is much more inclined to offer higher overbooking compensation as overbooking and overcrowding is a much larger concern. If your flight is overbooked, these are your rights as a passenger.

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Booking a group trip?

Search for only one ticket at a time. If you search for, say, four tickets, and we have only three at the lowest fare, all four are bumped to a higher price bracket. In a time of COVID-19, it’s important to make sure the airline offers refunds on last-minute changes of plans due to illness or travel restrictions for all members of your party. This holiday, fly with a budget airline travelers actually recommend.

Baggage Claim
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Lost your luggage?

Don’t delay reporting it, even if the lines to do so are long. Most of us require you to file a report within a very short time period. If you miss the deadline, your claim may be denied.

Pilots sitting in flight simulator, rear view
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Our pilots can’t eat together

Some airlines don’t allow two pilots flying together to eat food from the same source within an hour of each other. Either they have to eat at different restaurants, or one waits at least an hour to make sure the other doesn’t get poisoned or sick.

Rows of empty seats on airplane
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Our seats really are getting tinier

You’re not imagining it. In the Boeing 777s used for long-haul international flights, we recently shrank the seats by one inch so we could fit an extra seat in each row. However, in the time of a pandemic, many (but not all) airlines are declining to book the middle seat in an attempt to give everyone more space and peace of mind. Make sure to check the airline policy on diminished capacity and middle seat availability before booking. Try these tricks to sleep well on an airplane.

Aircraft disinfection due to COVID-19
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Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize

In the wake of a pandemic, airline cleaning standards have naturally increased dramatically. While airlines in the previous years may not have wiped down tray tables between flights, now the policy is standard. Airlines are using air filtration systems, disinfectant fog, UV lights, and EPA-approved cleaners to sanitize all surfaces and interior cabin areas to make sure passengers are as safe as possible. Still, most health experts recommend bringing along your own disinfectant wipes to wipe down all surfaces (tray tables, seatbelts, seats, armrests, headrests, etc.) before settling in for the flight. Find out the truth about recycled air on airplanes.

Waiting for a flight in airport
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If your flight is canceled…

… get in line at the ticket desk or the gate counter, but also get on the phone. You’ll probably reach an airline phone agent before you get to the frazzled agent behind the desk. With COVID-19, airlines are especially prone to cancellation due to a number of uncontrollable factors. While some airlines are being extra courteous, others are not as understanding. Make sure to check your airline’s “unforeseen circumstances” policy to see what merits a refund or rebooking in the new coronavirus-era. This is the most (and least!) delayed airline to fly with over the holidays.

Hands of a Businesswoman Working at a Cafe, a Close Up
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We’re not a fan of price-comparison websites

We pay a fee every time you book through price-comparison online sites like TripAdvisor and Orbitz, so we’re making it harder for you to use them. Some airlines (Delta, Southwest) don’t release fares at all to certain third-party sites. Check out these hidden airline features you never knew existed.

Airplane aisle
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There’s a right time to switch seats

Check the seat map about four days (100 hours) before your flight. That’s when we start upgrading fliers from coach to business and some of the best seats open up. If you aren’t flying first class, you might want to know about the right way to get up from your seat without disturbing your neighbor.

13 things airlines plane carpet

We are totally disgusted when…

… we see you walking around barefoot on the plane. That carpet? Everything you can imagine has been spilled on it: vomit, milk, baby pee, and blood, to name a few. This is especially unsanitary, dangerous, and often prohibited in the wake of a global pandemic. Check out these other etiquette rules for airplane passengers.

female traveller texting at airport check-in desk
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Know what you’re entitled to

If we cancel your flight, we will offer to put you on another one. But you should also know that even if you have a “nonrefundable” fare, we will give you your money back if you ask. Learn even more in-flight secrets with these 22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest