Top Airline Conspiracy Theories

Posted Feb 17th 2010 09:31 AMUpdated Mar 17th 2010 11:01 AM

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Conspiracy-lovers have made some outrageous claims, from declaring that the "Miracle on the Hudson" never happened to asserting that airlines purposely create delays to make money. We investigate (and debunk) some of the more popular theories.

By Bridget Gleeson

It was like a scene out of a big-budget Hollywood action movie: a commercial plane loses power just minutes after taking off from LaGuardia airport, the pilot tells passengers to brace for the worst, panic ensues as the plane goes down over a body of water while horrified office workers watch from nearby skyscrapers. But this story didn't end in disaster. The pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, set the plane down gently into the Hudson River and successfully evacuated all 155 passengers and crew members onto rescue ferryboats. The story was all over the news; photos of the crash landing were uploaded to the web, and Sullenberger became an instant hero. Amazingly, in spite of the unforgettable images from that day (particularly the photos of passengers standing on the wing of a plane bobbing in icy water), some claim that the crash never happened. As crazy as that may seem, it's not the only topic in air travel that conspiracy theorists are debating. Read on for more of the most popular speculations-and whether or not any of their theories hold water.

The Miracle on the Hudson

The Conspiracy Theory: It's worth noting that many of the theorists involved here are commercial airline pilots, a fact that adds at least some credibility to the questions in that they're posed by knowledgeable industry insiders, not sci-fi fans or anarchists. It stands to reason, then, that the pilots' most valid questions are of a technical nature (how is it possible that the flock of birds knocked out two engines but did not damage the nose of the plane? How could twenty survivors stand on the wing of a plane without collapsing it?)
The Real Story: Flocks of birds caused engine failure three minutes after Flight 1549 took off; the plane crash landed in the Hudson River.

Since the pilots presumably are not media experts or photographers, their theories lose steam when they discuss inconsistent news reports (why have some photos of the event been Photoshopped? Why are the photos 'fuzzy' and 'distant' when the event occurred in such a central and easily accessible location?) Plus, there's the fact that hundreds of people actually witnessed the event as it occurred.

Delayed Flights

The Conspiracy Theory: Airport wait times and delays are often unnecessarily announced and departure times are listed earlier than the plane is actually planning to take off; these delays are designed to make travelers spend more money at the airport's shops and restaurants.
The Real Story: Flights are delayed due to weather and mechanical issues.

Theorists are correct in their suggestion that the air travel system is, almost in essence, a money-making machine, especially in these troubled economic times. But there's a hole in their theory: in addition to the fact that air travel involves plenty of legitimate weather issues that cause delays, it also would not necessarily benefit airlines for passengers to spend more time in the airport. Now that most airlines only offer food and drink for purchase on flights instead of providing complimentary meals, the airlines stand in direct competition with airport vendors. Many shops and restaurants in larger airports even have ad slogans indicating that travelers will pay less and have a better selection if they buy a sandwich in the airport instead of on the plane itself.

Crash Position

The Conspiracy Theory The 'brace position' was designed by the airline industry; it is more likely to kill a person than to save him, which is good for the airline's bottom line because it's cheaper to pay off wrongful death suits than to pay continuous injury compensations.
The Real Story: The 'brace position' can save passengers' lives in a plane crash.

The Discovery Channels' Mythbusters tested the theory and proved these allegations false. Using a test subject, investigators recreated a crash scenario and found that the brace position protected the subject from serious injuries. When the subject experienced the same crash in a different position, he was the victim of serious (and likely fatal) injuries. However, theorists still have something to hang onto: research shows that the money airlines have to pay for wrongful death suits is, in fact, lower than the amounts paid for injury compensation.

Airline Surcharges

The Conspiracy Theory: Airline surcharges are purely money-making devices. Theorists suggest that airlines' hidden costs-baggage fees, holiday price spikes, charging for in-flight food and entertainment, charging extra for roomier exit-row seating-are arbitrary and that executives are simply creating ways to take travelers' hard-earned cash.
The Real Story: Airlines have to charge more as the price of oil goes up and the economy suffers.

There's a grain of truth to the theory-an airplane, much like a movie theatre or an amusement park, is a place where guests are temporarily confined and only have limited choices. Whatever the movie theatre (or airline) charges for a soda, people will pay. But the conspiracy theory doesn't give enough credit to the economic hardship that's taken such a hard toll on the industry. One could argue that an airline 'hiding' costs is one way to encourage budget-strapped travelers to keep flying, even if they have to carry on all their luggage and skip the in-flight movie to save a few bucks.

Cell Phone Use

The Conspiracy Theory: Theorists moan that cell phones don't interrupt any of the plane's functions: the airline just doesn't want a plane full of travelers chatting away to their sisters and husbands for the duration of the flight.
The Real Story: Cell phone use is prohibited on planes because it could interfere with airline communication (and it confuses cell phone carriers!)

It's true that a handful of passengers talking on cell phones shouldn't have any affect on the plane's operations. As Wired magazine reported in 2008, plane communications have long been protected by tried-and-true wiring systems that won't be upset by travelers' cell phones-part of the reason cell phone use is restricted is that "when phones ping for signals at 35,000 feet, they can hit hundreds of towers at once, necessitating complicated parsing of roaming agreements. Providers don't want the hassle if they're not being properly compensated, so the government has left the plane ban in place."

Frequent Flier Programs

The Conspiracy Theory: Frequent flier programs are a joke.
The Real Story: Frequent flier programs, though not as efficient as they could be, make it possible for travelers to save money by accruing miles that are redeemable for future flights.

As theorists (and the general public) often complain, major airlines' programs are overly complex and flawed systems that make it difficult for even the most mobile business traveler to use his 'free' miles efficiently. It's true that these programs can seem more like a marketing tool than a user-friendly service-the airlines tightly control when and how travelers can redeem their miles. But travelers who book well ahead of time-and take advantage of the routes offered through the major airlines' partner carriers-agree that frequent flier programs still work.

Changing Fares

The Conspiracy Theory: Airlines change their fares quickly and dramatically to pressure potential travelers to buy tickets.
The Real Story: Customer demand and quickly fluctuating seat availability cause airfares to change quickly.

Many frustrated fliers have shopped around for the best fare on the web, but by the time they get out the credit card to make the purchase, the fare is suddenly 'unavailable.' Theorists argue that the airlines are unfairly manipulating the listed prices to lure travelers. But the fact of the matter is that flight availability is quick to change, especially now that most fliers are booking virtually: if you saw a good deal on a flight, so did hundreds of other potential travelers, and at least a few of them are likely to snap up the flight's remaining seats while you were searching other websites for a lower price.

Bankruptcy

The Conspiracy Theory: Forget bankruptcy: the airline industry is doing just fine.
The Real Story: Airfares are going up and airlines are charging extra fees as the industry tries to stay afloat during a major economic crisis.

The inflated airfares and the increased fees are helping airlines avoid bottoming out financially, or so the theorists say. Unfortunately, it's not so: even with the high prices, most airlines are in critical cash positions-and even accountants who don't work for an airline agree with the idea that current airfares aren't high enough to support an airline's operations. It's not good news for frequent fliers: but fares will continue to climb.
Filed Under: News, Air Travel

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