Plane Answers: Fear of flying, aging aircraft and more on those ‘dings.’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Brian asks:

I would like to know if I have the option of knowing what kind of plane I’m in and how old it is at the time of making my reservation?

Specific airplanes are usually chosen the night before a trip, so it’s impossible to know the age of your jet when you’re making your reservations. You can look up the average fleet age for each airline though.

I’m more concerned with the experience level of a cockpit crew than the age of the aircraft, but neither of these factors are published before your flight. Sometimes you just have to trust that the maintenance program and training at a given airline are adequate.

U.S. carriers are setting new safety records each year in what may end up being the safest decade of flying in the U.S. yet. and more specifically for the past six years, a period with very few new airplanes ordered.

David asks:

I travel often internationally on various airlines and I’ve noticed that on some carriers, there’s a ping or ding at intervals during the climb and sometimes also during the descent. I’d wondered whether it is the pilot’s way of notifying the cabin crew of the altitude cleared or that it is safe for them to move around––or is it something automatic to an aircraft engine system. I’m curious because sometimes the seatbelt sign is still on but you see flight attendants moving around; this is especially true on United long-hauls.
Each carrier is slightly different, but as I touched on in a previous post, these ‘dings’ are usually done during the climb and descent through 10,000 feet. This lets the flight attendants know that the sterile period, has ended.

The cockpit is considered ‘sterile’ below 10,000 feet, and unnecessary communications between the cockpit and the flight attendants or even between the pilots is discouraged.

Flight attendants are free to decide when it’s safe for them to begin their service. If we know of the potential for some significant turbulence ahead, the captain will advise the flight attendants that they should remain seated until we’re through that particular area.

Ashley asks:

I would just like to know if there is anything you could recommend to someone deathly afraid of flying. I’m going to Puerto Rico next month and I don’t do so well on planes. I hyper-ventilate on take-off and all throughout I constantly worry the plane will crash. Any advice would be great!

This is by far the most frequent question I’ve received on Plane Answers. I struggle with it every time, because while I can understand how scary air travel must seem to many passengers, I can’t get past the sheer statistics involved.

At my airline, we have over 2,500 departures every day. There are more than 10,000 departures in the U.S. daily. Airlines are reluctant to mention safety records, but there have been no fatalities in the past two years for domestic U.S. carriers.

A quick comparison to the more than 40,000 fatalities every year in automobiles might make you consider chartering a helicopter to get to the airport for your next trip.

I think much of the fear associated with flying comes from not being in control. If passengers could at least see out the front window while flying, I know they’d feel much more secure. Imagine how nerve racking it would be to sit in a taxicab with only a one square foot window to see out the side.

So when this question comes up, these numbers go through my mind. But I realize that all the statistics in the world won’t eliminate anxiety. So there are a couple of companies such as SOAR and the free service at that specialize in helping people overcome their fear of flying. I’ve mentioned these two in the past, although I don’t have any experience or feedback from any of the people who’ve participated in their courses. Anyone else out there who has some experience with fear of flying courses, let me know in the comments below what has helped you.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

What strange things have been found on planes?