Traveling alone can sometimes be quite mundane – particularly on a long-haul flight. With no one to converse with other than the occasional polite word or two to a flight attendant, you might feel the urge to strike up a conversation with the person assigned the seat next to yours. If so, why not try a few of these suggestions for conversation starters as you both spend many hours sitting just inches apart? Who knows, it could even mark the start of a wonderful friendship!
Common ground in the air
We all know how it is. Flying long-haul alone can actually get rather tedious and, on occasion, can be quite a lonely affair. Even for the hardened avgeek, counting the hours as they slowly drift by can seem like an eternity. It is often, therefore, nice to turn to the person sitting alongside you and chat for a while to break up the monotony.
Of course, by doing so, you run the risk of coming across as being rather over-friendly, imposing, or just plain irritating. However, fear not. We at Simple Flying suggest that you choose a subject on which you and your neighbor unequivocally have a lot in common – your flight.
Why not strike up a conversation with your neighbor? Photo: KLM
Fascinate your neighbor with your expansive knowledge
What better opportunity will you get than this to impart your impressive in-depth knowledge about the sights and sounds around you as your aircraft cruises along, with only the inflight entertainment, meal service, or sleep to draw your neighbor’s attention away from your encyclopedic knowledge of aviation?
What’s the worst that can happen should you do chose to enter into discourse with the person seated next to you? They might find your aviation-rated banter utterly fascinating, retaining everything you tell them to be reeled out again at a later date at some cocktail party they may attend in the future.
That said, they might simply ‘invite’ you to stop talking to them, or worst still, ask to be moved to a seat elsewhere in the passenger cabin. Even that would be a win-win, however, as you will gain some extra inches to spread out as the seat next to you becomes vacant.
Why sit alone not talking to anyone when you can engage others in a friendly chat. Photo: Air France
So why not have a read-through of our suggested conversation starters listed below? The topics broadly follow the events that occur on a long-haul flight in chronological order. So you can choose one of our ice-breakers at any stage of your next flight.
However, note that the longer you leave it, the more unconventional (let’s call it) it will appear if you try to begin a conversation with someone with whom you have been sitting adjacent in silence, avoiding eye contact with each other for the past few hours.
1. The sound of a barking dog
Once you are onboard, quickly settle into your seat. If you happen to be traveling on an aircraft produced by Airbus, the first thing that may catch passengers’ attention is the apparent sound of a dog barking in the cargo hold. This unmistakable sound is often heard as the plane prepares for pushback and engine start, but also on shutdown.
The source of this rather unconventional sound is a component known as the Power Transfer Unit (PTU). This part is an element of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems, located within the underfloor area in the center of the cabin, and facilitates the switching of electrical power from one system to another in the event of a failure. A PTU generally consists of a hydraulic pump connected to a hydraulic motor with the help of a shaft. It performs its function by surging, which causes the component to repeatedly and suddenly spool up and down. This action is what results in the ‘barking’ sound.
However, if your neighbor’s eyes visibly glaze over as you explain this, perhaps lighten the mood of this early exchange by simply telling them that it is merely the captain’s dog in the cargo hold, reminding the ground crew to feed it before the doors are closed, and the plane departs.
Is that the captain’s dog I can hear? Photo: Air Canada
2. The ‘pushback wobble’
Once everyone is onboard and the aircraft doors are closed (listen out for the announcement for “all groundstaff to leave the aircraft“), then the pilots will be upfront preparing for pushback to commence and to begin the engine start procedure, starting each engine in turn (but never together, for monitoring purposes).
As the cabin crew ‘secures’ the cabin for departure, look out for the feeling of a slight wobble or lurch through the airframe as the aircraft sways slightly forwards or backward. This is the point at which the ground crew has communicated to the pilots via their headsets beside the aircraft nose that the area is all clear and that the flight crew can release the parking break in preparation for departure.
At this point, the weight of the aircraft shifts from the main parking brake to the pushback tug and the tow bar as it prepares to move the aircraft into its taxi position. Once clearance for ‘push and start‘ has been received by the flight crew from air traffic control and is communicated to the ground crew, the pushback tug powers up, and the pushback procedure commences.
Notice the aircraft wobble slightly as the brakes are released just before pushback. Photo: Getty Images
3. Red lights and red flags
Just before pushback, the aircraft’s red anti-collision beacons (conventionally one located on top of the plane and one below) will begin to flash. These are turned on with a switch in the flight deck and warn all those on the ground around the aircraft that it is ‘alive’ and powered up, posing a potential threat to those near it on the ground.
Once you detect the anti-collision beacons flashing from the cabin (either reflections on other parts of the aircraft or via the onboard cameras visible from your seat back screen), you can tell that the plane is ready to depart.
Of course, you can tell your neighbor, just as an additional nugget of information, that these lights remain on throughout the flight to improve your plane’s conspicuity with other aircraft flying in the vicinity.
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The anti-collision beacon is still on as the aircraft approaches the gate. Photo: Maja Gedosev (JetBlue)
With engines started and just as your aircraft begins to taxi out to the active runway, if you are seated on the left (or ‘port‘) side of the aircraft cabin, look out for the ground crew seemingly waving a little red flag at the captain.
This is not some age-old aviation ritual whereby the ground crew wish the flight well with a kind gesture involving waving a red flag. It is actually a procedure far more integral to the safe operation of the flight. The red flag is a strip of thick plastic material on which the words ‘remove before flight‘ are typically printed in white. This itself is attached to a thick metal pin, known in the industry as a gear pin or nose gear ‘ground lock.’
When in situ, these are in a dedicated location on the nose gear assembly to prevent either the accidentally commanded or, indeed, uncommanded nose gear retraction while on the ground. The pin slots into the retraction mechanism, effectively disabling the mechanism from performing its retraction function by jamming it. There have been incidents where this pin has been left in, forcing the flight to return to land when the crew cannot retract the gear after takeoff.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the flight crew and the ground crew to ensure that the gear pin has been removed before taxiing. Waving it at the captain demonstrates this is the case.
4. Why do parts of the wings move before takeoff?
Usually, as the aircraft starts to taxi out towards the active runway, you will notice parts of the wing moving in different ways if you are seated near the wing. To the uninitiated, this can be alarming, but you are on hand to steady any nerves in this regard.
The first thing you will probably notice (and hear) is the setting of the flaps into the takeoff position. One of the first items on most taxi checklists is to set the takeoff flaps well before the aircraft approaches the runway. Checking that the flaps are set for takeoff also appears later in the pre-take-off checklist. Even the aircraft itself warns the crew by giving an audible warning if they try to advance the throttles to take off power and the flaps are incorrectly set (the ‘master configuration warning‘).
As the plane taxis out, you might also notice the spoilers popping up from the top of the wing and the ailerons deflecting at the rear of the wing. This is the result of the flight crew performing a ‘full and free movement check‘ to ensure that all flight control surfaces (ailerons, rudder, elevators) are working correctly before the aircraft takes to the air.
The rudder is checked for full movement before the aircraft takes to the air. Photo: Getty Images
Harder to spot will be the deflection of the rudder on the tail, which is also checked by the pilots pushing the rudder pedals in the flight deck each way in turn. Incidentally, this pre-flight check is carried out on everything from the smallest two-seat trainer up to the Airbus A380. Look out for it as your plane taxis out, and be ready to allay any fears your neighbor may have seeing parts of the wing flapping about!
5. Time for takeoff
As your plane nears the runway, you might notice that it is at this point that the bright white strobe lights located at the wingtips start flashing. This action is an item on the pre-take-off checklist once the aircraft is cleared to line up on the runway.
The lights are only used for conspicuity once the plane is flying and, given their intensity, can be a distraction to other pilots on the ground, hence why they are only turned on as the aircraft prepares to take off. Conversely, as part of the after-landing checks, the lights are turned off as soon as the plane vacates the runway at the airport of arrival.
You may also notice that as the aircraft approaches the holding point for the departure runway, you might hear two clear ‘dings‘ over the PA system. This is a signal from the flight deck that takeoff is imminent and that the cabin crew should be in their seats at this point. Often this sound will be replaced by a more conventional “cabin crew seats for takeoff” announcement, although the ‘double ding’ method might be used if the workload on the flight deck dictates the quicker option is used.
Both passengers and crew receive a final audible warning that the flight has been cleared for take-off. Photo: easyJet
An often-asked question is why do the cabin crew insist on the window blinds being open and dimming the cabin lights for takeoff and landing, even at night? This is basically a safety issue. In the daylight, should there be an engine incident on takeoff, the cabin crew can visually check which side would be the more appropriate to initiate an evacuation.
While this reasoning also applies at night, it would take the human eye several seconds to adjust from escaping from a brightly lit cabin into the darkness outside, where obstacles and other hazards may occur. Dimming the cabin light eradicates this difference in lighting conditions so that an emergency evacuation is not hindered by passengers’ eyes having to adjust to the different lighting conditions.
Evacuating either in daylight or at night is perilous even with light-adjusted eyes. Photo: Getty Images
6. Quirks with windows
On your long-haul flight, you might opt for a window seat to while away the hours looking at the landscapes and vistas pass slowly beneath (and possibly having to avoid talking to the person sitting next to you). Imagine the disappointment when you reach your seat on boarding to find that there is no window and you are sitting next to a blank wall. Why is this?
Commercial airliners have complicated air conditioning systems and other electrical cabling and pipework that need to be accommodated somewhere. While most of this will be hidden away in the cabin ceiling space or in the floor, some of it (particularly the air conditioning riser ducts) are fitted in the cabin walls at certain intervals, making the fitting of a window at that position impossible.
On the subject of window quirks, people often notice that the window blinds on emergency exit row windows pull up to close, rather than the more conventional ‘pull-down’ style seen elsewhere on the aircraft. This again is a safety feature, on which you can read a full article here for further explanation.
In some seats, you get several windows while in others, you might not even get one. Photo: United Airlines
7. Where does the crew go?
It is not uncommon, particularly on long-haul night flights, for the cabin crew to seemingly disappear, leaving just one or two colleagues in each cabin to tend to the needs of any passengers still awake. But where do the rest of the cabin crew go? Are they hiding in the toilets, behind the galley curtain, or somewhere else? In fact, they are taking regulated rest periods and often have specific locations on the aircraft to take this rest away from the passengers’ view.
Welcome to the world of crew rest areas. Certain airlines will provide a dedicated crew rest area on their long-haul aircraft, which often includes bunks and changing areas. These can be located above the passenger cabin, at the rear of the main cabin up a small staircase (such as on the 747-400), or even on the lower deck in an LDCRM (Lower Deck Crew Rest Module).
Again, these are accessed by a stairway behind a hidden stairway in the main cabin and are in areas that the general public rarely gets to see. You can read much more about how crew use their rest periods and the various designs of crew rest areas by following these links.
Long-haul passenger aircraft often have dedicated crew rest areas located away from the passenger cabin. Photo: Boeing
8. During the flight
You will always know when your flight is nearing its conclusion as you will hear an announcement from the flight deck. You may think this is purely for passenger convenience, but it serves several purposes.
Firstly, for most airlines, the ‘top of descent‘ briefing must be made as part of the descent checklist carried out just before the aircraft leaves its cruising altitude and begins the ‘descent and deceleration‘ phase of the flight.
Yes, such as briefing can help give the passengers an update about the estimated time of arrival and the local weather at the destination. But it also alerts the cabin crew that there usually are about 30-40 minutes left to prepare the cabin for landing and also that the aircraft will be starting its descent imminently with the possible risk of turbulence as the plane descends through the levels.
The top of descent passenger announcement also signals for the crew to complete the service and secure the cabin. Photo: Eurowings
9. Approach and landing
As the plane descends, you (or your curious neighbor) may spot several things happening. Firstly, as the aircraft descends, it wants to pick up speed (think of a ball rolling down a hill). The flight crew can deploy the spoilers on top of the wing to reduce the airspeed building up, particularly if a high rate of descent is required.
With the deployment of the spoilers comes mild vibration through the airframe and additional noise as the disrupted airflow over the wings passes along the passenger cabin.
You may also notice that the flaps (used to slow down the aircraft to its final desired landing speed) are lowered in stages rather than just dropped down in one single movement. This is because the plane can become unstable with too much flaps lowered too quickly, and also that there are limits on how much flap can be lowered for the airspeed of the airframe to which they are attached. Too fast, the flaps can be ripped from the wing with the risk of causing more damage to other parts of the airframe as they detach.
Flaps seen in the fully ‘down’ position for landing Photo: Airbus
If you happen to be sitting towards the front of the cabin on an Airbus aircraft, you may hear three ‘bleeps‘ emanating from behind the flight deck door as the plane approaches the runway. This is the sound of the autopilot being disconnected by the handling pilot as they take over manual control to perform the landing.
Once safely on the ground, you may notice that the spoilers have again popped up on top of the wing. Besides helping to slow the aircraft, they are now more effective in acting as lift dumpers – effectively destroying the lift created by the wing traveling through the air and forcing the wing onto the ground as the airspeed over the wing decays.
You may also notice that the engine sound increases for a short while. The flight crew selects reverse thrust, which acts as an additional braking system by deflecting accelerated air passing through the engine forwards, helping slow the aircraft down to a manageable and safe taxi speed to vacate the runway.
An A330 with reverse thrust engaged. Picture: Qantas
10. The end of the flight
As your flight finally reaches its gate and your fellow passengers prepare to disembark, two last snippets of information may send your neighbor on their way, happy and ready to share their newfound knowledge with their own neighbor on their next long-haul flight.
Firstly, contrary to popular belief, when you flush the toilet on an aircraft, the contents don’t simply drop down a chute to be expelled from the airplane onto what might lie below on the ground. Instead, a toilet servicing vehicle (colloquially known within the industry as a ‘honey wagon‘) will drive up to the aircraft’s rear, where it will empty a huge tank in the plane’s hold containing all of the waste from the toilets and sinks on the flight.
Lastly, with long-haul flights, it is generally not the case that the cabin crew has to stay behind to tidy up the cabin after all of the passengers have departed. Airports and airlines employ teams of cleaning operatives to perform this function long after the crew has left to enjoy their well-earned rest at a local hotel.
The cabin crew depart the aircraft shortly after the passengers leaving cleaning the cabin to specialist cleaners. Photo: Etihad Airways
However, always spare a thought for those tasked with cleaning your aircraft as you survey the debris and general carnage left behind by possibly hundreds of people as they rush to disembark.
Your job is done
On the assumption that your neighbor is still sitting beside you and even talking to you as your aircraft arrives at its parking stand, you can rest easy, knowing that your work is done and that you have imparted your knowledge one step further along the chain of the great traveling public.
At the end of your flight, will you have made a friend for life or scared your neighbor away? Photo: Singapore Airlines
If, however, your neighbor disappeared “to the toilet” early on during the flight (possibly taking their hand baggage with them) and never reappeared, perhaps you might consider that you should have stopped at the ‘barking dog’ story. Just an idea for you to consider for your next long-haul flight!