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Answers to the 16 Most-asked Airplane Questions in 2024

I started this blog about budget travel and traveling well for less way back in 2003. It’s celebrating its 20th birthday now. I’ve gotten a lot of questions in that time in comments, by e-mail, and on social media. Many of them are airplane questions or about airlines. I also see a lot of these questions in forums and on Google itself, so I thought it would be fun to answer a few common ones here.

airplane questions and airline answers

It’s no secret that the flying experience has gotten much worse in those 20 years since I started blogging on here and the fares have gotten a lot more complicated. A ticket used to include a seat and a checked bag nearly everywhere until the legacy airlines raced to the bottom to join the budget ones. Now nearly every company dings you for extra fees for everything. (Except the airline daring to be different: Southwest.)

Also, airfare prices used to stay fairly static, so much so that airlines would advertise fare prices in print magazines. Now it’s all dynamic pricing that can change by the hour. The same with frequent flyer miles: you earned them depending on how far you flew and there was a clear mileage chart showing how many miles you needed to go to Europe or South America. Now you earn almost nothing from actually flying and need to have the right airline credit card to rack up points. When you go to use those points, you have no idea how many you’ll actually need.

So it’s no surprise that consumers are in a constant state of confusion and hundreds of thousands of people are asking questions about airplanes and airlines every month. I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few.

Are plane rides scary?

The snarky answer to this is, “Are car rides scary?” Because the reality is, you’re exponentially more likely to die in a car crash than you are in a plane crash. The USA has more auto fatalities in a year than there have been cumulative airline deaths since the year I was born. And I’m not a young man.

If you want to dig into the current data whenever you read this, you can go to the IATA site and see all the stats on plane crashes, which have declined a lot over the years from an already low level. Overall, they’re quite rare, with fewer fatalities than passenger trains, even though trains are already on the ground, just like cars. This succinct summary for last year says it all:

Accidents are rare in aviation. There were five fatal accidents among 32.2 million flights in 2022.

That plane you’re boarding has less than a one-in-a-million chance of crashing.

Now I’ll admit a flight can be “scary” without killing you. Sometimes there’s an air pocket and the plane suddenly drops a few hundred meters, which will really get your attention. Or you hit some rough turbulence that shakes the whole plane. (Keep your seat belt on kids.) Or you see lightning outside your window that’s being lashed by rain.

There’s some evidence that turbulence is increasing too, yet another problem we’re encountering thanks to the slow response to climate change trends and a warming planet.

Can turbulence crash a plane?

While turbulence can be unsettling when you’re flying, most experts say that it can’t cause a plane crash on its own. More often, all that shaking requires a trip to the maintenance hanger to check all the bolts and fastenings and inspect for cracks. Sometimes the turbulence can cause damage to seats or cause injuries to passengers from objects flying through the air—like a six-pound laptop maybe.

The real danger arises when planes aren’t properly maintained. If there are already inherent problems that infrequent inspections didn’t turn up, the turbulence can amplify the effects. Also, pilot error could increase when flying through turbulence as opposed to smooth skies with no issues.

Can rain delay a flight?

can rain delay a flight?

I recently spent nearly two hours sitting on the tarmac in Charlotte after boarding my flight because…it was raining. That’s only half the story though: the true reason we couldn’t take off is because the control tower was spotting lightning. They had a protocol in place that all planes had to wait a specific period of time after the last strike to get the “all clear” to depart.

While we tend to think of airlines as greedy corporate fee-grabbers, they do put a high priority on safety, as evidenced by the low accident rate mentioned earlier. A metal tube with hundreds of people inside is not going to take off during a lightning storm. The air traffic controllers and pilots need to make sure the passengers are safe. A delay is an inconvenience, but a necessary one.

Where it gets tricky is when there’s just some rain and the airlines blame their cancellations or delays from other reasons on “weather delays.” This way they can get out of paying any compensation to passengers. In reality, planes can take off, fly, and land when it’s raining just fine. If visibility drops, however, small delays can amplify and set off a chain reaction, especially in New York or London where you have planes coming into three airports in a rather small geographic area.

Strong winds can also be a factor, whether accompanied by rain or not. This is how we get into situations where you’re looking out the window at a sunny day but the gate agent is talking about weather delays. If the winds get too strong, they are more of a danger than precipitation. Then there’s snow and ice, which can both cause legitimate delays from runway safety declines to the need to de-ice the plane wings.

Sometimes people ask, “Can a plane take off in a thunderstorm?” (I always wonder if they’re asking these airplane questions while in an airport.) Usually yes, but again it depends on factors besides the rain. Most airports have lightning protocols, visibility can be an issue, and high winds creating a wind shear can cause delays. If it’s just thunder and rain though, you’ll probably take off eventually.

Can autopilot land a plane?

The answer to this one is, “Sort of.” If the pilot and co-pilot both died and your average Joe had to step in and land the plane, it would play out like it does in the movies: with someone on the radio giving instructions. There’s an “autoland” system, but it’s not on the level of a self-driving car pulling into a parking space.

There’s a detailed explanation on this site, but here’s a summary:

All large commercial jets can land automatically, but still with plenty of pilot involvement. So-called autoland systems are a part of aircraft autopilots. All large modern jets are equipped with such systems, which can automatically land the aircraft, albeit under careful supervision from the pilots themselves.

There’s a reason new pilots have to go through so many simulations and flight hours. It’s not for the job of flying through the air: the autopilot can take care of just keeping the flight on course. Most of that training is for the takeoff and landing.

P.S. – Yes I was very tempted to put a photo of the blow-up autopilot from the Airplane movie in here, but we’ve got to get our mind out of the gutter and keep rolling…

Can you bring alcohol on a plane?

duty free liquor on a plane

The short answer for this is that you can bring small bottles and duty-free purchases onto the plane, yes, but you can’t open or drink them. So put that booze in the overhead bin and don’t touch it until you depart.

How much can you put in checked luggage? Well, here’s the sober explanation from the TSA for U.S. flights:

“Alcoholic beverages with more than 24% but not more than 70% alcohol are limited in checked bags to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) per passenger and must be in unopened retail packaging. Alcoholic beverages with 24% alcohol or less are not subject to limitations in checked bags.”

So officially you can come back from Mendoza with a few cases of wine, but if you fly back from the town of Tequila with 16 bottles as I did one, you’re taking a big chance. (I made it!) You’re not supposed to take or bring more than 5 liters in your checked bag. Remember that if you’re taking advantage of duty-free liquor volume deals.

For the plane itself, you’re fine with airplane-size bottles you get from your local liquor store as long as you don’t open them. They’re technically supposed to be in a plastic quart bag, though I haven’t done that for a decade. You’re also fine bringing any duty-free purchases onto the plane. They’re packed in a special bag at the shop and usually delivered as you board the plane.

Are there changing tables in airplane bathrooms?

On the majority of large planes, you’ll usually find a changing table in the bathroom if you need to change your child’s diaper. While it’s better to use the spacious ones in the airport before and after when that’s possible, you may have to make use of the plane one on an international flight across an ocean.

There’s surprisingly little information about this online, to the point that one of the top-ranking articles on the subject in search is from 2012 and mentions an airline that’s been gone for more than a decade. You would think that a site like SeatGuru would include this in their data points, but they don’t. So you really have to sleuth around.

In general terms, the larger and newer the plane and the longer the route, the more likely you are to find a changing table in the airplane bathroom. Tiny 3-seat-across Embraer regional jets are usually a bad bet, while huge jumbo jets with 8 seats across that are flying across the Atlantic or Pacific will usually have them.

On U.S. airlines, JetBlue claims to have changing tables in the bathroom on all flights and American Airlines does on all wide-body planes. United has them on most of its Boeing planes, but not on the smaller ones.

The “Children and Infant Travel” section of the Delta site talks about all the ways they’re going to charge you and all the rules they impose, but there’s nothing about where you can change a diaper when your baby poops. The same goes for Spirit, which isn’t a surprise: they’d like to charge you extra for one if they could get away with it.

Southwest has officially stated that they have at least one on every flight, usually in the front lavatory. That brings up another point: there may be one bathroom on the plane that has a changing table and you may be out of luck with the others. So ask the flight attendant which one to head for so you don’t get a negative surprise.

Can you use your laptop on a plane?

no legroom on an airplane Viva Aerobus

While it’s hard to get any work done in the cramped economy seats on most airlines, you are allowed to use a laptop on a plane. There are restrictions on when you can use it though: it has to be put away during take-off and landing for safety reasons. This means that if you’re in an exit row or bulkhead, it needs to go above you in the luggage bin until you get the all-clear to pull it out after the plane hits cruising altitude.

On some flights you might get lucky and find an electrical outlet under your seat. The cheaper your seat and the shorter the flight, however, the less likely this is to be the case. So assume you’re going to have the time your battery typically lasts to work or watch a movie. Most airlines have Wi-Fi you can purchase, though it’s hit and miss on when it will work depending on what the plane is flying over. Domestic flights are easier than international ones. 

Can you actually set that laptop on your tray table though? If you’re not in business class, an exit row, or a bulkhead seat though, probably not. The laptop will truly go on your lap and will likely still have to be tilted.

Seat pitch keeps shrinking so the airlines can cram more seats in, even as the world’s average height grows and the girth of Americans keeps expanding. On most airlines, the seat pitch is somewhere between 29 and 32 inches. That’s not much room between the back of your butt and what’s left in front of your knees.

You can usually get this info for your particular flight from On budget airlines where you’ve got to pay to pick a seat anyway, you might want to spring for one with more legroom to get some work done. It won’t be a $70 difference like it is on some legacy airlines. It may only be a few bucks. 

Are airlines hiring pilots?

airline pilot runway view

Yes, airlines are definitely hiring pilots and lots of them. If you have a son or daughter reaching adulthood who wants a guaranteed job when they finish training, pilot school is about as close as you’ll get to a sure thing. There’s a huge pilot shortage around the world thanks to pandemic layoffs (and retirement incentives), the huge number of pilots reaching retirement age, and the explosion of new airlines around the world.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says this: “About 16,800 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.” In 2022, United and American announced that they were hiring 2,000 pilots each; both had trouble meeting their goal. Not all the jobs are with commercial airlines either. There are cargo flights, charter flights, sightseeing planes, and others.

Those numbers above are just for the USA. Foreign airlines are struggling to hire enough pilots to keep up with demand as well and some of them pay much better than domestic ones. The budget airlines pay the least, then at the other end of the scale, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Singapore Airlines are known to pay the most. Pilots with decades of experience can make 3X or 4X what a new pilot will earn and get their pick of routes.

The education for this job is more like getting an MBA than becoming a real estate agent though. There’s classroom training, then you must complete the required 1,500 hours of flight time, then you go into a training system operating under a real pilot. It can take up to four years between starting the training and piloting a commercial aircraft.

Which are the best airlines to work for?

You can poke around on Glassdoor to see employee satisfaction sentiment for airlines, with all of the major U.S. ones having at least 6,000 reviews and an average of 10,000 salary listings. If you’ve noticed that Southwest employees seem to be a lot more cheerful than their counterparts, they are genuinely happier. They regularly top lists of the best companies to work for and show up higher than others in effectively managing work-life balance.

JetBlue gets high marks in some surveys as well, especially in regard to its 12 weeks of maternity leave. Delta is known for having some of the best benefits packages, including a good health insurance plan and plenty of complimentary travel. Hawaiian Airlines lets employees give one-way space-available tickets away to companions or family, as in 20 per year.

How much do flight attendants earn? Well, not much. Like most jobs that lay people see as glamorous, the perks are supposed to make up for pay that is anything but. According to this article, here’s the scale for Alaska Airlines, which has a good reputation as a company:

Alaska Airlines takes longer to top out in pay than the other larger airlines. Alaska Airlines starts their flight attendants at $24.95 per hour and they top out after 16 years at $60.31.

You also have to go through weeks of unpaid training, as in 6.5 weeks at American according to that study. (Then pay starts at more than $30 per hour though.) Southwest at least pays a nice bonus to those who complete the training. Most airlines have a strange system too where the flight attendants don’t get paid while customers are boarding, even though the attendants have to smile and say hello 200 times.

Among the foreign airlines, Asia and the Middle East rule for employee satisfaction and the best compensation. Qatar, Emirates, Singapore, and Cathay Pacific generally score the highest. I was on an Emirates flight for the first time last year and the cabin crew in economy class there delivered a level of service that you normally find in business class on other airlines. Plus they spoke 11 languages between them and the food was great.

Are plane tickets cheaper on Tuesday?

Of all the airplane questions on this list, I get ones about supposed hacks and secrets the most. A lot of people think there’s some special knowledge they are missing out on to find deals. I imagine this belief is perpetuated by silly articles telling you you’ll get the best flight deal by booking at midnight on Tuesday or some other weirdly specific time.

Occasionally you’ll see some study that says booking on a weekday can be slightly cheaper than booking on a weekend, but then you’ll see other surveys showing it makes no difference whatsoever. Expedia put one out a few years back that found Sunday searches produced better deals than other days, but not by much.

I have booked hundreds of flights and have not noticed any pattern myself. I’ve probably booked every day of the week evenly when finding the best deals. Remember, fares are constantly adjusted dynamically so they can go up or down just depending on competition and how many seats have been sold.

So shop around, but if you see a great deal then snag it. Don’t wait until some random late night in the middle of the week.

As NerdWallet says when debunking this myth, “There is no single day of the week that is best to book a flight. You can find deals any day of the week since flight prices fluctuate with demand.” What they do say in this article I agree with: actually flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday is usually cheaper than other days of the week.

If you’re ever in a big hub airport on a late Friday afternoon, you’ll have trouble finding a seat at the bar because of all the business travelers flying home. If you head to the Cancun airport on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, the whole departure area will be jammed with vacationers. So naturally you’ll find a better flight deal in the middle of the week usually. There is just far less demand. Keep your travel variables open so you can take advantage of this natural fluctuation.

Do budget airlines like Allegiant and Spirit Airlines fly international?

international budget airline volaris

While we tend to think of American budget airlines as a way to take short-hop flights for cheap to see the relatives or get away for a bit, some of them do have international routes.

While I’d hate to spend four hours or more in a cramped Spirit Air flight where I have to pay to get a drink of water, they do offer a way to get a lot of places for cheap, especially if you can pack super light like I did on one trip with just a personal item bag. Spirit Air’s surprisingly robust international options include four cities in Mexico, seven in Colombia, two in Honduras, every Central American country except Belize, Peru, and some Caribbean islands.

Frontier, based in Denver, was once a full-service airline, but now they’ve joined the Spirit at the bottom charging extra for everything. They offer some of the cheapest international flights if you have your calculator handy when tallying up the fees though. Frontier flies to Guatemala, Costa Rica, several Caribbean islands, and three destinations in Mexico.

Volaris is based in Mexico, but this budget airline is the fastest-growing one in North America and they’ve got a lot of U.S. cities targeted in their growth plans. Right now you can fly to Mexico and sometimes beyond from a lot of cities in Texas and California, plus Las Vegas, Chicago, and even New York City (from Guadalajara). Then via Mexico City you can fly on to Central America, Colombia, or Peru.

Other foreign budget airlines based in Canada and Europe can get you to international destinations too. These are coming and going all the time, but for Europe check Norse Atlantic, Edelweiss, or TAP Portugal.

Also, even though they’re one of the biggest airlines and are not always “budget,” it’s important to remember that Southwest has international flights too. They currently serve several destinations in Mexico, both airports in Costa Rica, Belize, and several Caribbean island destinations. They don’t show up on booking sites though: go direct to their website to check.

Start a flight search here from your airport.

If you’re flexible, a subscription to (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) could land you some huge discounts on special sales, mistake fares, and other deals from your airport.

Does every plane have an air marshal?

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airport and airplane security increased dramatically around the world and we’re still dealing with some of the sillier aspects in the USA, like taking our shoes off and removing lip balm from our pockets to go through a body scanner. One aspect that has gradually faded though is the prevalence of air marshals on planes.

This was always kind of a hidden, shadowy operation anyway since the whole idea was that a terrorist wouldn’t know who they were up against and where that person was sitting. Now that we’ve gone so long without an incident, however, these marshals are reportedly now on only a small percentage of flights.

The exact details are classified, so few people know for sure, but I couldn’t find any current estimate higher than five percent. Considering that there are 25,000 or more flights taking off and landing in the USA each day, the cost to put an air marshal on each one would be staggering, especially since they travel in pairs. This article estimates that fewer than one percent of flights have them aboard. (On foreign carriers operating in the USA, it’s zero.)

How many electronics can you bring on a plane?

I’m not really sure why this is a frequent query on Google, but it is, so maybe there are a lot of import/export types or event facilitators flying around? And they need to bring a lot of electronics with them?

From what I could find in my research, there’s no stated limit to the number of electronic items you can bring on a flight, no restrictions on how many laptops or smartphones you can carry. If you want to bring a whole carry-on suitcase with enough gear to stock a store, nobody is going to stop you at security if it’s a domestic flight.

International arrivals will be a different story, however, because then you’re dealing with customs and import restrictions. While the TSA may say there’s no limit, foreign ports of entry will feel differently. There are usually restrictions on bringing more than what would be considered “personal use,” especially if said items are still in the original packaging, ready for resale. They could be confiscated or, at the least, you’ll need to pay duty on the retail value if you declare them or you get stopped.

How many people can fit on a plane?

local flight in Belize

Again, I’m not sure why people are asking this airplane question so much in the search engines, but the quick answer to how many people can fit on a plane is 4 to 853, a wide range. I flew on one in Costa Rica that had four passenger seats plus two for pilots. I was surprised when I got on and didn’t see an empty seat. The pilot motioned me forward and I sat next to him. Thankfully he didn’t have a heart attack because see the section above on whether a plane can land itself.

Yes, that was a commercial flight I booked online. You’ll find a lot of these small prop planes plying the routes of Costa Rica and Belize and you might be on a small seaplane if you’re traveling from Vancouver to Vancouver Island or some far-off place in Alaska. Prop planes often seat 6 to 20 passengers.

If we’re talking about commercial jets though, the range is generally somewhere between 50 and 600. The low end is those Embraer jets with only three seats across that top out at 50, the high end would be the largest Boeing and Airbus jumbo jets meant to handle long-haul international flights.

In theory the largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380, can hold up to 853 passengers in a high-density configuration. It’s probably safe to say that every airline buying a plane that big would rather devote some of that space to high-ticket upper-class fliers though, so I doubt there are any of that model equipped to carry so many. It’s more likely that there will be 644 in a two-class system, less if there’s both business class and first class.

Then there’s the crew on top of that, so add anywhere from 3 to 30 to the total for who else is along for the ride.

What are the largest airlines in the world?

By the number of flights, this is one of the easiest airplane questions because they’re the three largest airlines in the USA:
1. American
2. Delta
3. United

Turkish Air

Among all the international airlines, Turkish Airlines flies to the most destinations.

Can you buy travel insurance after booking a flight?

Many people ask this because there’s usually a box you can check when you’re buying a flight ticket that adds on insurance. The language is usually high-pressure and a bit dishonest, making you think that if you don’t buy travel insurance right then and there, you’re going to be taking some major risk and all hell will break loose.

In reality, this is just another profit center for the airline or online booking site, the equivalent to a luggage fee or priority boarding fee. Yes, you often should buy travel insurance for your trip, but you don’t have to do it right when you purchase the flight.

If you travel a lot, I’d advise getting an annual policy from Allianz. They’re the same company that’s in half of those checkmark boxes but you’ll spend a lot less in the long run (under $200 per year) and then you can safely ignore all those nagging messages. Also, if it’s just a short direct flight on Allegiant with a carry-on bag, the insurance may not be worth it.

Keep in mind too that if you’re flying into or around Europe, you already have far more protection under the law than you do in North America to get compensation if your flight is delayed or canceled. You can even use a service like Compensair to go get your money from the airline if you don’t mind giving them a cut.

Otherwise, shop around and you might find a better travel insurance deal for your flight. I work with Safety Wing and they’re the best for digital nomads, but check with Travel Guard and others too.

Whew, that’s enough questions about airplanes and airlines for now, so I’m going to leave it at that.

If you really like to geek out on aviation though, check out my friend Kerwin’s blog. He used to work for an airline and has the inside scoop. Here’s one more answer from him: the 20 longest flights in the world.


Friday 17th of November 2023

I appreciate how you take these seemingly random questions and turn them into a journey of discovery. It's the kind of post that not only satisfies my curiosity but also leaves me with a newfound appreciation for the intricate details of flying. Your writing style, blending humor with informative nuggets, makes even the most technical aspects of aviation feel approachable.

tim Rowledge

Thursday 5th of October 2023

I think autocockup must have bitten - nobody is operating ‘hydroplanes’ between Vancouver & the island. Those would be ‘float planes’, ie a normal small plane with a pair of damn great kayaks where you might expect wheels. They’re wonderful fun to fly on when the weather is good because they fly low enough to let you see what’s in the water and sometimes that is a Humpback or a pod of Orca.

Tim Leffel

Thursday 5th of October 2023

Okay, fair enough. Harbour Air calls them "seaplanes," so I switched the term to that. They are a fun way to travel!


Thursday 28th of September 2023

Hi Tim,

Speaking of "that's enough questions about airplanes and airlines for now" brings up a new question. Do You know of any alternative to the Mexican rental car insurance mafia ? Most travel policies seem to cover vehicle damage, but not liability for other vehicles' passengers.

Some rental rates are swell, but the required insurance ( from a Mexican Insurer ONLY) brings a protection racket to mind.

Recent quote for PV was ~ USD 150 for a few weeks, required insurance USD$ 2286.60 . Yes, really. Anything encouraging ? Thanks,



Thursday 16th of November 2023

@Tim Leffel,

Thanks ,Tim. Your reply is the first clue that this might not be universal in Mexico. Michael

Tim Leffel

Saturday 30th of September 2023

There are some companies that offer liability insurance when you book the car or it's included in the rates. Shop around and don't book until you find one of these and do not pay in advance if the liability insurance is not included. It is required, but this has led to a lot of outright fraud where what should be $10 to $15 per day comes with a tacked-on fee of several times that like you saw. Get a booking where it's clearly spelled out that it's included or you've paid a reasonable price for it, then save screen shots so you have them. Don't be afraid to walk if they start scamming you. That happened to me in Cancun with Europcar. I walked outside and a tout was waiting to lead me to another car company where insurance was included in the price. It was literally half of what Europcar was trying to charge. At the Guanajuato/Leon airport where I live, avoid the local Budget Rent-a-Car office like the plague. They are known scammers who will quote a cheap price online that's half everyone else's, but then won't rent you the car unless you pay a highly inflated insurance charge, no matter who you booked through.