Dec 23, 2022

The Flight Before Christmas

At any given moment, nearly 500,000 people are crammed together in a metal tube, hurtling through the air. In this episode, we look at the strange human experiment that is flying together.

Special thanks to Natalie Compton, Julia Longoria, Mike Arnot, and everyone at Gate Gourmet.

EPISODE CREDITS: 

Reported by - Matt Kielty, Simon Adler and Rachael Cusick
Produced by - Matt Kielty, Simon Adler and Rachael Cusick
With Production help from - Sindhu Gnanasambandan
Original music and sound design contributed by - Jeremy Bloom
and mixing help from - Arianne Wack
Fact-checking by - Natalie A. Middleton
Edited by  - Pat Walters

CITATIONS: 

Videos

Lou Boyer, the animal-flying pilot from our episode, has a great plane-forward Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/loub747/). As well as a whole YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/@loub747/videos) dedicated to snakes and planes. (Luckily, not both at the same time.)

Books

Richard Foss's Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies (https://zpr.io/KZyTPJkSENVq)

Michael Heller's and James Salzman's Mine: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control our Lives (https://www.minethebook.com/)

CHECK OUT:

The Death, Sex and Money series Estrangement (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/deathsexmoney/projects/estrangement)


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Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

MATT KIELTY: Ba ba ba. Okay.

LULU MILLER: Wow, look at that difference.

LATIF NASSER: Huge difference. [laughs]

MATT: All right. Let me just do the—I'm producer Matt Kielty. Blah blah de blah blah.

LULU: All right. You want to just take it away?

MATT: Yeah, let's just jump right in. Because 'tis the season for one of the greatest miracles on Earth. Not the birth of Christ.

LULU: [laughs]

MATT: Virgin birth. Pretty wild stuff. But actually, the miracle of human flight.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, flight attendant: Hello, everyone. My name is David, and I'm your chief flight attendant. On behalf of the Captain ...]

MATT: Okay. Now I should say this is not a story. I don't have a story to tell you.

LULU: Who needs a story? Matt, throw us whatever you got.

LATIF: We're captive.

MATT: All right. So I wanted to start on a plane because millions of people around the world are gonna be on them around this time of the year.

LULU: Yeah.

MATT: But also because of this thing that happens to me every time I fly, which is like, you're on the plane, you're out on the tarmac, you're waiting to take off for a while, a long while. And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, pilot: Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff, please.]

MATT: ... the engines start to whir and suddenly you feel this bump, that jolt. Like, the whole plane starts shaking. You can hear the seats rattling. Plane is just going faster and faster. You're doing something like 180 miles an hour. And then all of a sudden you're just like, "Oh!" And you feel that little rise, and you leave the Earth. And you can see the ground just start to fall away. And the higher you get, you can start to see the snakings of the freeways and the highway systems and the parks and the neighborhoods. And then all of a sudden you're in the clouds. That's where we used to think that gods existed.

LATIF: Yeah, yeah.

LULU: Yeah.

MATT: And angels. And, like, we're just up there. And maybe you take a moment to kind of just take a breath, relax.

DAN KOIS: Feeling a state of pleasant anticipation about the place you're going to be when you land.

MATT: I actually talked to Dan Kois, who's a writer for Slate, who pointed out to me that one of the incredible things about being up there with all these people ...

DAN KOIS: Is, you know, we're 200 people or so, and we're like a little civilization.

MATT: ... soaring through the sky. Which is actually kind of where everything goes wrong because what it means is it's just you and a bunch of people trapped inside of a relatively small metal tube.

DAN KOIS: And any agency we have over ourselves has essentially been stripped of us. You are literally strapped into a seat, no longer in control of your physical body or your fate. It is in other people's hands.

MATT: And you start to wonder: who are these other people?

DAN KOIS: Like, is the person next to me a loud snorer, or a drooler on my shoulder?

MATT: And there was that guy across the aisle who looked, "Hey, hon. Hey, honey."

DAN KOIS: Super flirty with the flight attendants.

MATT: Is that a kid behind me?

DAN KOIS: They might kick the back of your seat.

MATT: Somebody sounds sick.

DAN KOIS: Like, they're coughing a lot.

MATT: What if our pilot's a bad pilot?

DAN KOIS: We could crash and I might die.

MATT: And slowly you are confronted with the fact that this glorious miracle of human flight is really just some sort of like weird endurance test.

DAN KOIS: Yeah. Or like a test of your worth. Like, can you make it through this challenge with your humanity intact in order to earn the reward at the end, which is that you're in Palo Alto or whatever?

LULU: Okay. This is Radiolab. I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF: I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU: And today, to ring in the holiday airline travel season, we are going to take you on a flight.

LATIF: A flight through the sometimes stressful ...

LULU: ... sometimes scary ...

LATIF: ... sometimes disgusting ...

LULU: ... sometimes pleasant ...

LATIF: ... endurance test that is flying commercial.

LULU: We've got three different stories that examine three different elements of this strange little civilization in the air. And to kick it off ...

MATT: Yeah, it's like, in all the tens of thousands of miles of space, these few inches are the most contested.

LULU: ... producer Matt Kielty.

LATIF: Okay, so Matt, maybe just rewind a second.

MATT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LULU: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MATT: Okay. Go back. Airplane. Civilization.

DAN KOIS: Let's see. What do I ...

MATT: Gonna bring back Dan Kois for this. So in our little civilization, I think of—I think of the pilots, the flight attendants as sort of the guardians, the providers, the authority figures. And then also up at the front of the plane you have the first-class passengers.

DAN KOIS: They're in another universe.

MATT: "Oh, you won't believe what he said!"

MATT: Talking about whatever they talk about. Drinking champagne and mimosas.

MATT: "He said bootstraps!"

MATT: Probably in their pajamas.

DAN KOIS: Being massaged.

MATT: "And I said, 'No, no, Bradley! Loafer tassels, not bootstraps!'"

LULU: [laughs]

DAN KOIS: But the rest of us ...

MATT: We are in the endurance test.

DAN KOIS: 35 rows of six.

MATT: Where you're stuck in these seats. Seemingly have no cushion, just fabric. And that's where you are for your flight. Upright locked position. Except for when you finally ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, flight attendant: Hello, everyone. The captain has turned off the fasten seatbelt sign, and you may ...]

MATT: ... hear the little seatbelt sign. Your first little bit of freedom on the flight. And if you want, to your left, there is that oh-so-nice little metal button, the recline button.

LULU: It's such a delicious button!

MATT: It is perfectly concave for your thumb to just, like, nestle right into...

LULU: Nestle into it!

MATT: It's like a little bed for your thumb. It wants to be touched. It's begging for you to touch it.

LULU: [laughs]

MATT: But the thing that I have not stopped thinking about for the past month is how this little button actually contains this sort of basic moral dilemma, which is: do you push it and push your seat back, taking up a little bit of space from the person behind you for your own comfort, knowing that that might make them less comfortable?

DAN KOIS: Well, I mean, so ...

MATT: And basically what that means for Dan, every time he flies on a plane, right before the seatbelt sign goes off, he's sitting there waiting, hoping, wondering ...

DAN KOIS: If everyone will just this once prioritize the health of the community over the comfort of the individual. And then the little ding goes off and you discover that people don't. They don't care about the community. They don't—they're not willing to sacrifice even a tiny bit of comfort for the greater good.

LULU: Oh, come on! That feels so extreme!

MATT: What—Sure but ...

LULU: Is Dan a tall gentleman?

MATT: Oh, no, no, no. Dan's 5'9".

LULU: Oh, okay. That's—that's my land.

MATT: But no, I think Dan has a point here, which is if you choose to recline, not only are you taking up someone else's space ...

DAN KOIS: They then feel they have to recline, and so you are setting off a cascade of unpleasant circumstances right down the line as every person now faces this decision about their own comfort now under duress.

MATT: But you have to admit that it's much more comfortable to be reclined than it is to be upright.

DAN KOIS: Is it much more comfortable?

MATT: How much of a recline do you get on a ...

DAN KOIS: Five degrees, typically. A five-degree recline.

LULU: But in such a confined world, that little bit is at least something. It's like a little gulp of fresh water. It's like a little [sighs].

MATT: Yeah, I agree.

DAN KOIS: But it's hard to imagine that the difference in your happiness from reclining five degrees is even close to the increase in unhappiness of the person behind you, who now has your seat in their face.

MATT: So Dan's solution is basically therefore no one should recline, which feels pretty extreme. And actually, I was talking to my roommate about this, who loves—she loves to recline. And she said, "Why not everyone just recline, and then you maximize happiness for everybody. If everybody gets to recline," but ...

LULU: But then bathroom seat.

MATT: The last row. The last row doesn't have the ability to recline. But her position was: you found the back row on your own accord.

LATIF: No, that is not true!

MATT: Your own individual responsibility!

LATIF: That's just self justifying.

LULU: To wait that late to buy your ticket ...

MATT: Right. You waited—you waited too long ...

LATIF: No way!

MATT: ... to pick your seat.

LATIF: That is cruel victim blaming! That's like ...

LULU: You gotta build the plane to let the back seat recline and then we could all recline.

MATT: It's a great idea. But Dan would still say no.

DAN KOIS: It is still a selfish move to recline because you are simply saying, "I'm making this decision for everyone." You're effectively saying, "What I want is what everyone should want. So let's all just recline. There, I solved it."

LULU: Okay. Now I'm starting to feel like a monster.

LATIF: You're a recliner? You're a major recliner?

LULU: Yeah. It's like, I'll take my little corner of like—I'm usually anxious and so I'm like, I gotta take that extra inch and a half and, like, try to find a little comfort.

LATIF: Okay. Now this is good, because I do not recline.

MATT: Really?

LATIF: No. I—I don't. I really—I'm an absolutist. I don't recline.

MATT: You mean, like, never?

LATIF: Like, maybe if there's no one behind me, but like, yeah, I don't think I have ever reclined.

LULU: Okay, Mr. Moral High Ground. Maybe I'm just feeling defensive, but I do—I feel like I gotta go here. Like, I do wonder if there's a gender thing afoot here which is like, women are used to not getting any space, so a little bit less—like, I'm not affronted by anyone reclining in me because I'm used to, like, not taking up space and, like, moving through the world.

LATIF: Okay, granted. Granted, different people value that space a different amount, right? But it doesn't kind of matter what that person behind you is valuing because if you choose to recline, you're making that choice for them.

MATT: Okay, maybe I can just jump in quick and say I, on occasion, do recline, but I do it as softly and gently as possible.

DAN KOIS: That's—what a gift you've given that poor bastard behind you.

MATT: But I feel like—I feel like we're having this moral argument, which I understand. But to me it feels like it's more an argument about ownership. Because it's like I paid for the ticket, for the seat that comes with a recline button, and therefore, like, it feels like the space behind me belongs to me. Like, I own that space.

DAN KOIS: Right, but that makes no sense—what do you mean you own the space behind you? I own the space in front of me!

MATT: You have no control over the space in front of you.

DAN KOIS: I know. That's what's so upsetting about it.

MATT: But then do you ...

DAN KOIS: Because imagine you're sitting—right now, you're sitting in front of your computer, right?

MATT: Yes. Uh-huh.

DAN KOIS: And you've got a microphone in front of you and you're recording this. And one of your next door neighbor just fucking showed up and, like, put his lawnmower on your desk.

MATT: [laughs] Okay.

DAN KOIS: It's exactly the same.

MATT: Well, but it isn't 'cause it feels slightly different. It's like, what if—it feels more like if there was like some sort of movable wall with my neighbor that I had no access to control, but they paid their price for their apartment, and it's just like one of the features of their apartment. And so for some reason they need to—like, they're having a large dinner party and they need to move the wall over three feet, they're gonna just gonna be like, "blurp."

DAN KOIS: Do you see, in trying to invent this analogy, that it's insane.

MATT: [laughs]

DAN KOIS: The very idea. Here's a question: what do you do ...

MATT: Mm-hmm.

DAN KOIS: ... you're on a flight. You're—you're in—you're in your seat. The seat—the person in front of you has reclined. You're annoyed about it. You're simmering.

MATT: Yeah.

DAN KOIS: Then they get up and go to the bathroom.

MATT: Oh!

DAN KOIS: But leave their seat reclined.

MATT: I would never.

DAN KOIS: I always, always go push their button and pop it back up.

MATT: Dan! I thought you were a model citizen!

DAN KOIS: I am a model citizen!

MATT: That feels—I don't know. You're—you sound like a tyrant is what you sound like.

DAN KOIS: I'm just a good parent.

MATT: [laughs]

MATT: But as I was reporting the story, I did start to wonder, like, who actually owns that space? So I talked to these two lawyers.

MICHAEL HELLER: Michael Heller.

MATT: Michael.

MICHAEL HELLER: Professor at Columbia Law School.

MATT: And ...

JIM SALZMAN: Jim Salzman.

MATT: Jim.

JIM SALZMAN: Professor of Environmental Law at the University of California Santa Barbara School of the Environment and UCLA Law School.

MATT: So Jim and Michael wrote a book called Mine! M-I-N-E.

LATIF: Uh-huh.

MATT: Exclamation point.

LULU: Mine!

JIM SALZMAN: Yeah. So the book Mine! is basically who gets what and why.

MATT: And in the book, they point out what is actually kind of obvious, which is that the airlines are the ones who own the space on a plane. Like, they're the ones who actually own this recline space.

JIM SALZMAN: And there actually is a rule that airlines have, which is you're allowed to recline. Airlines will never enforce it.

MATT: And they told me that in fact, flight attendants are trained to just de-escalate conflicts about reclined seats, not actually come in and say who controls that space.

MICHAEL HELLER: And by not making it clear who controls the recline space, they get to sell that space twice on every seat on every flight.

MATT: Because the recliner thinks that they own it and the reclined into thinks they own it.

MICHAEL HELLER: They basically pit us against each other.

[NEWS CLIP: A new air war has broken out.]

MATT: Which leads to ...

[NEWS CLIP: Two passengers ...]

MATT: ... irresolvable conflict.

[NEWS CLIP: ... got into a brawl Sunday.]

MATT: There's been drinks thrown, fists thrown.

[NEWS CLIP: Punching the back of this woman's seat after she reclined it.]

MATT: I mean, there have been flights that have been grounded because of fights over seat reclining.

LULU: Whoa!

MATT: And sure, maybe you actually have more self-restraint than that, and you just seethe in your seat in frustration if somebody reclines into you, but the whole point is ...

MICHAEL HELLER: We get mad at each other.

MATT: We turn against each other because we're in this confined space where we all think we own this precious little sliver of it.

MICHAEL HELLER: And "It's mine," "No, it's mine," lets you experience that conflict as being between me and you, rather than between being us and the airlines.

LULU: Ah! So this is all the airlines' fault. They, like, encourage this conflict to just be left in muddy waters. No clean—you know, no clean boundaries. Like, boundaries are an illusion, I guess, but we agree upon them. No clean boundaries. It's just gonna be murky. It's just gonna, like—it's incentivizing conflict. It's incentivizing hating of your fellow human. Like, so let's just hate the airlines.

LATIF: Yeah, I agree. I agree with that.

MATT: [laughs]

LATIF: I agree with that.

LULU: And then like—and then ...

MATT: But that's not—but the problem is that doesn't actually solve the problem, though.

LULU: Well no, it does. Here's why: because then you can do either thing.

LATIF: Uh-uh. Uh-uh. No way. You can't wash your hands here, Lulu!

LULU: Well, I might ask now. I can learn. I think—I think I would ask now.

MATT: I should say, I do think there actually is a solution here, which I ...

LATIF: Okay, say it, say it, say it, say it.

MATT: Okay, so there was this research done by two other lawyers actually, like back in 2014. It was something that was published in Slate. But these two lawyers did a survey, it was online, where they polled I forget how many people. And they were trying to figure out is there actually some sort of solution that seems viable? So the research showed that, like, actually just asking somebody, trying to be polite, trying to ask like, "Can I lean back?" or, "Can you please move your seat forward?" is ineffective. That doesn't actually get you what you want.

LATIF: Ineffective.

MATT: Yeah. And so then they started asking, well, like, how much money would it take for you to either stop reclining, or for somebody to give up the space in front of them to allow somebody to recline? And this is kind of absurd. The amount of money it would take for somebody to give up the rights to the space in front of them? $39 is what the number came out to be.

LULU: Wait, what?

LATIF: Wow!

MATT: You'd have to pay somebody $39 essentially, to be able to recline into their space. Like, that's how strongly they felt about the space in front of them. That's the dollar amount that ...

LATIF: That feels reasonable. That weirdly feels like a reasonable amount.

MATT: To stop somebody from reclining? The number was $41. You would have to pay somebody $41.

LULU: So but what does that mean? Okay let's ...

LATIF: To me, I see it, there's more pain in—you're willing to pay more. There's more pain in reclining.

LULU: No, it's more luxurious! It's like ...

MATT: No, we're not even—we're not even, like—the point I'm trying—this isn't even the point I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is that actually, the most effective thing that you can do is the researchers asked, what if somebody purchased for you a drink or a snack, that's maybe, like, eight bucks?

LATIF: Oh, that's nice! I love that.

MATT: 78 percent. 78 percent of people said they would accept that offer and not recline their seat.

LATIF: Amazing.

MATT: They only asked people who were gonna recline. So it's limited to just people who were gonna recline.

LULU: Wait. So Latif could be like ...

LATIF: Amazing!

LULU: Wait, wait. So it could go like this: Latif could go tap me on the shoulder and say, "Lulu, can I buy you a drink to not recline?"

MATT: Yeah, exactly.

LULU: And I'd be like, "Oh, I would love a little chard!" And then I'd be like, "Latif, can I buy you a drink to recline?" And you'd be like, "Well, I don't want a fancy cocktail, but you could buy me a tomato juice. And some—and one of those expensive cheese plates." And then I'd be like, "Okay!" Oh!

MATT: "I can recline now."

LULU: That's classy.

MATT: And isn't it so sweet? It's so cute.

LULU: It's all—it's sweet, but it's back to capitalism.

MATT: Well, no, no, no, no, no. It's gift giving.

LULU: It's transactional.

LATIF: I mean, you're saying the solution to the problem of the plane selling that space twice is to buy more snacks from them and give them more money.

MATT: Okay.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, flight attendant: Hello, everyone. In a few minutes, the flight attendants will be coming down the aisle to offer you complimentary hot or cold beverages as well as a light meal for purchase. Alcoholic drinks are also available at a nominal charge. Now sit back, relax, enjoy the flight, and thank you.]

LULU: All right. Next up, we have got a story from our producer Simon Adler.

SIMON ADLER: Okay, when I say "airplane food," what—what comes to mind for the two of you?

LULU: The blandest, unhappiest, tiny packet of experience.

LATIF: [laughs]

LULU: And there's often a barf-y quality.

LATIF: Mmm.

LULU: Making my stomach turn.

RICHARD FOSS: [laughs]

SIMON: Fair enough. But what if I was to tell you that it wasn't always this way?

LULU: Hmm.

RICHARD FOSS: I'm given to understand that we're ready.

SIMON: Excellent! Excellent! Well ...

SIMON: That in fact, as food writer and frequent flier Richard Foss here tells it, not that long ago ...

RICHARD FOSS: It was wonderful.

LATIF: Huh!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: [singing] There's wings to your heart.]

RICHARD FOSS: Even in economy.

SIMON: Yeah. For years, food was the way that airlines competed for customers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: Today's menu includes a shrimp cocktail, a chocolate hot sundae.]

SIMON: And so you saw this sort of arms race for who could be tastier and fancier.

RICHARD FOSS: So on transatlantic flights by SAS ...

SIMON: Scandinavian Airlines, that is.

RICHARD FOSS: ... it was a Scandinavian smorgasbord, carving salmon and all sorts of things. An airline called Northwest Orient ...

SIMON: Which was based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

RICHARD FOSS: ... served Japanese food ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: [speaking Japanese]]

RICHARD FOSS: ... on flights all over America in what essentially became a flying tiki bar.

SIMON: [laughs] What?

RICHARD FOSS: Yes. It was not Japanese food as any Japanese person would recognize it, but for someone in the 1950s, this was glamor. You get to the point where Alitalia airlines of Italy ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: [speaking Italian]]

RICHARD FOSS: ... they just made it an Italian restaurant that served you food all the way from one place to another.

SIMON: Parmesan!

LULU: Mmm.

SIMON: Prosciutto.

LULU: Roma tomatoes.

LATIF: Yeah!

SIMON: Red wine out of an actual wine glass.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: That's flying Alitalia.]

LULU: I want that flight!

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

RICHARD FOSS: It was a pretty amazing experience.

SIMON: So that's how it was.

LULU: Okay. If they could return to that.

LATIF: Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

LULU: But continue. Okay.

SIMON: Well, how airplane food became the sad, sorry thing it is today, you could argue, all began with an olive.

LULU: What?

LATIF: What?

RICHARD FOSS: Yes, Crandall's olive.

LULU: Because olives are great!

LATIF: Huh!

LULU: I love olives!

LATIF: Me too!

SIMON: Well, they ruined it. And here's how.

LULU: [laughs] Okay.

SIMON: Back in the 1980s, American Airlines had this CEO by the name of Robert Crandall.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Robert Crandall: You can see that costs now exceed revenues. And that means, of course, that we are losing money.]

SIMON: Tough guy with slicked-back hair and glasses. And, you know, he was trying to make the company more money.

RICHARD FOSS: And what happened is he was on an American Airlines flight where a meal had been served, and he looked and he saw that most of the other passengers had left the olives from their salad sitting there. And that just bugged him.

SIMON: Sure.

RICHARD FOSS: He was thinking, "We're paying for these olives and no one's eating them." So he basically went back to his office and said, "Cut the olives." And then he started looking at everything else.

SIMON: You know ...

RICHARD FOSS: "Why are we using cloth napkins when regular napkins will do?"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Robert Crandall: Cut costs.]

SIMON: Who needs metal branded silverware?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Robert Crandall: Be a winner.]

SIMON: Next, stop giving people the entire can of Coca-Cola, and instead pour it into a tiny little cup and you get six ounces. Before long, you gotta pay for your goddamn cheese and crackers that they give you in the little box. Like ...

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: "Here's a damp rag. Suck on it for—and then pass it to the next guy." Right.

SIMON: Exactly.

LULU: [laughs] Pass it to the next guy!

SIMON: Exactly.

LULU: [laughs]

SIMON: And then on top of this, 9/11 happens.

LULU: Okay.

SIMON: And I don't know if you remember, but in the months after the attacks ...

[NEWS CLIP: Overall, the industry remains in a slump. Planes are only 62 percent full, revenues down about 40 percent.]

SIMON: Airlines were going bankrupt.

[NEWS CLIP: Continental has announced unspecified cuts.]

[NEWS CLIP: American Airlines also fighting to stay out of bankruptcy.]

SIMON: And so they sold off their flight kitchens. And these airline-owned smaller kitchens got replaced by companies like Gate Gourmet.

SIMON: Okay, we're now entering.

TOUR GUIDE: ... the dish room and the storeroom. I just want to explain as we walk.

SIMON: Companies that began churning out airplane food for tons of different airlines all at once.

TOUR GUIDE: Well, you know, this hour we've got 13 flights going out. Next hour we've got 24 flights.

SIMON: I went and visited one of these places just a couple miles from the Newark Airport—this massive warehouse, the size of nearly six football fields. And here ...

TOUR GUIDE: We have trucks coming all day long.

SIMON: ... 24 hours a day, on a scale that's almost impossible to comprehend ...

TOUR GUIDE: We use 7,000 pounds of wet ice a day.

SIMON: ... ingredients come in through the loading dock ...

TOUR GUIDE: A thousand pounds of stroopwafels, Biscoff cookies, pretzels ...

SIMON: ... and are prepared in this stainless steel-covered industrial kitchen.

MARK DECRUZ: Mashed potatoes. We need to make polenta mushroom deluxe.

SIMON: As we entered the kitchen, the Executive Chef, Mark DeCruz here was preparing some breakfast items.

MARK DECRUZ: We are braising, sauteing, stewing.

SIMON: So how many eggs are you gonna go through today?

MARK DECRUZ: It will be 2,600 eggs.

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: Eggs that will leave on little plastic trays.

SIMON: And how many meals do you think you make a day?

MARK DECRUZ: We make roughly like 15 to 20,000.

SIMON: 20,000 or so at a time.

SIMON: Wow! Thank you so much.

MARK DECRUZ: You're welcome.

TOUR GUIDE: We're gonna go back out and we're gonna go to cold food now.

SIMON: And I gotta say, walking away from that factory tour, I was left feeling that it's a minor miracle that we have food on airplanes at all. And also that, you know, at this scale, there's just no way, no matter how hard chefs like Mark DeCruz try, that this food is gonna be that tasty. But then, as I kept reporting this, I learned that these chefs are actually up against another challenge, one that has nothing to do with the airlines ...

CHARLES SPENCE: We can get it closer. Let's put that right there.

SIMON: ... and everything to do with us.

CHARLES SPENCE: That better?

SIMON: Yes. There, now you sound nice and rich and full.

SIMON: So this is Charles Spence.

CHARLES SPENCE: Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. I'm interested in the senses.

SIMON: And he says to understand why airplane food doesn't taste that good, we have to appreciate that taste it isn't just what's happening on the tongue.

CHARLES SPENCE: Our experience of what we call the taste of food, which is really the flavor, is probably one of the most multi-sensory experiences that we have, because it really does engage all of the senses. The coating you get on the inside of your mouth, the melting sensations.

SIMON: You know, that's all touch.

CHARLES SPENCE: The meaty, creamy, burnt of my wife's cooking kind of flavors is actually your sense of smell. And crispy, crackly, crunchy, those sort of sounds are really important to our enjoyment of food.

SIMON: And in an airplane at 30,000 feet, he says, all of these different senses, they're under assault. Take smell for example. In an airplane, it's super super dry.

CHARLES SPENCE: Equivalent to being in a desert. And what that means is your nose is gonna be not as moist.

SIMON: And so the little food molecules floating in the air, the ones that you're meant to smell, they're gonna have a harder time sticking to your nose.

LATIF: Huh.

LULU: Wait, for smell to work well, it needs to be a little, like, humid?

SIMON: Yup. Yup. And therefore you're gonna miss all that meaty, creamy, burnt goodness. However, Charles says, there is another stranger culprit at play here.

CHARLES SPENCE: Beyond smell, it's really the engine noise that plays a really important role in suppressing our ability to taste.

SIMON: Turns out that the 80 or so decibels of white noise that are pounding your ears from the jet's engines, they reduce your ability to taste salt, reduce your ability to taste sweet, and increase your ability to detect and enjoy umami.

LULU: Huh? What?

LATIF: Increases your ability!

SIMON: Increases, yes.

CHARLES SPENCE: So that you need 20 to 30 percent more salt and sugar ...

SIMON: And significantly less MSG or umami seasoning.

CHARLES SPENCE: ... to get the same taste experience as somebody down on the ground eating the same food.

LULU: What?

SIMON: Yeah.

CHARLES SPENCE: We know now that this is really a thing. In 2014, we published a paper saying ...

SIMON: There's something about that white noise that messes with us. And they've documented this in people both up in an airplane and then also with people down on the ground using just, like, headphones.

CHARLES SPENCE: Yeah. Just playing them 80 to 85 decibels of white or engine noise, their taste thresholds did change in this way. Sweet and salty, harder to taste, umami easier to taste.

LULU: That is so bonkers and specific. Doesn't that make you want to know why?

LATIF: Why sound would affect taste?

LULU: And particularly umami. Like, why that—that union?

CHARLES SPENCE: No one's got the faintest clue. [laughs]

SIMON: [laughs] Oh, okay.

SIMON: But they're pretty sure that this is why people drink so much tomato juice or so many Bloody Marys when—when they're in flight.

CHARLES SPENCE: Yup, yup. Tomato juice has got lots of umami. And Worcestershire sauce is another rich sauce. It's like the most umami-ish thing you could drink.

SIMON: We are such weird animals, man!

CHARLES SPENCE: Ah, yes. [laughs]

SIMON: [laughs] Okay.

SIMON: Okay, before I hop off, a couple quick solutions here.

LATIF: Yeah, yeah. Give me some—some advice.

SIMON: So number one, it's been recommended that you bring along a nasal douche, a small ...

LULU: [laughs]

SIMON: ... little bit of water.

LATIF: I never leave home without it, frankly.

LULU: [laughs]

SIMON: Just to spray. You know, to keep some moisture up there in your nose, which is gonna allow you to smell things better, and therefore enjoy the food more. Number two is you just bring a little MSG, because MSG is very umami-ous, and ...

LATIF: Yeah.

SIMON: ... just put a little of that on whatever.

LATIF: On everything.

SIMON: Yes. And it's gonna taste better.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: I've got another idea: noise-canceling headphones?

SIMON: Yes. And if you want to take the noise-canceling headphones one step further ...

CHARLES SPENCE: Why not pick some music that will enhance the taste of the food you're eating?

SIMON: Charles Spence and his lab, they've found that white noise isn't the only sound to impact our perception of flavor. That different sounds and different music can do all sorts of different things.

CHARLES SPENCE: You can't turn water into wine with music—the taste has to be there to begin with—but what you can do is dial up something in the tasting experience, or suppress less-desirable tastes.

SIMON: And so I will leave you with this: some empirically-backed sounds you may want to pair with whatever the tray that's put in front of you. So if you're looking to add some salt… they recommend something rhythmic, kind of harsh and in a minor key. So you might wanna try something like "Supernova at the End of the Universe" by The Orb here.

SIMON: If you're looking to bring out the bitterness, it's hard to do better than William Basinski's "The Disintegration Loops," thanks to its low, brassy drones and occasional crackles.

SIMON: Sour-accentuating music isn't particularly pleasant to listen to. It's high pitched and dissonant like composer Nils Oklan's "Horisont."

SIMON: And then lastly to bring out the sweetness, you're gonna want something melodic, higher pitched and probably with a piano somewhere in there, oddly enough. Like for example, Antonio Romero's "Fantasia here." All right, folks. Bon appetit!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, flight attendant: Hello, everyone. We hope you enjoyed your meal. The captain has turned on the seatbelt sign. Please return to your seats and keep your seatbelts fastened. We'll be right back. Stay put. Sit down. Thank you.]

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab. And now producer Rachael Cusick.

RACHAEL CUSICK: Okay, so there's this very specific moment when I'm flying. It's after I've scooped out the last bit of the world's most unsatisfying meal. I've kicked off my shoes. Everyone's, like, pushed their seat back who's gonna push their seat back. For the first time all flight I feel relief.

LATIF: Mmm.

RACHAEL: And then usually at that exact moment, this little bubble arrives in my stomach. This bubble, it starts out small but then it feels like it finds other bubbles and it grows and moves inside me. And pretty soon I feel like a lava lamp.

LULU: Mmm, Rachael, tell me you are not doing a whole story about farts.

RACHAEL: Sorry. Every single time. It's not like I was farting all day and then it just, like, continues on the airplane. It's like it just kicks on this switch in me that happens once I hit cruising altitude. And I go into this panic mode, 'cause I’m, like, packed in like a sardine with all these frickin' strangers around me. And I've always thought it was just me. But ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: I have had wind.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You've had cabin pressure.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: I've had cabin pressure!]

RACHAEL: It is not. Turns out ...

[NEWS CLIP: Somebody passed gas on an American Airlines plane.]

RACHAEL: ... the airplane fart ...

[NEWS CLIP: A fight broke out over a passenger who allegedly refused to stop passing gas.]

RACHAEL: ... is a global problem.

[NEWS CLIP: Thousands of feet in the air, the pilot is forced to divert.]

[NEWS CLIP: And everyone had to be removed from the jet, it was that bad.]

LULU: I'm just in a ball of discomfort.

RACHAEL: [laughs] I'm just in a ball of curiosity. Like, what is happening here?

LULU: All right. So then how do you answer that question? Where—where do you go?

RACHAEL: So we actually have to go down a little bit, down to ground level.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: All right.

LULU: Land the plane for a sec.

RACHAEL: We're gonna land it. No one get off.

LULU: I feel better already.

RACHAEL: We have to go back to this hiking trip.

LULU: Okay.

RACHAEL: From the 1980s. Two men, York Miller ...

YORK MILLER: And my friend, Paul Auerbach, who was a class behind me at Duke Medical School.

RACHAEL: York Miller is the one telling us this story, by the way.

LATIF: Great.

LULU: Okay.

YORK MILLER: We'd planned a five-day backpacking trip ...

RACHAEL: In Colorado.

YORK MILLER: In the San Juan Mountains.

RACHAEL: So day one, they start hiking.

YORK MILLER: Back in there in some high country.

RACHAEL: And they go up higher.

YORK MILLER: Above timber line.

RACHAEL: And then ...

YORK MILLER: Probably the very first night.

RACHAEL: They kind of get into their tent. They zip it up. And one of them farts. And then the other one does. And all of a sudden, their tent is filled with this symphony. And it's a symphony of farts.

YORK MILLER: Yeah, I'm one of these guys who likes to make as much noise as possible.

LULU: Ugh! Awful!

RACHAEL: [laughs] You thought this was better, Lulu.

LULU: I thought I was safe. Okay.

YORK MILLER: You know, it could be quite unpleasant in that tent.

LULU: I just might—my—my hands are, like, clenched against my face right now!

RACHAEL: This happens again and again. And by the way ...

YORK MILLER: Paul and I were, you know, stuck in a tent together in the rain.

RACHAEL: There's like, truly no escape. It's not like you're gonna, like, step outside and fart. Ultimately, they decide to expedite this trip from a five-day trip to a three-day trip. Not because of the farts.

LULU: Oh, not because—oh, okay. [laughs]

RACHAEL: But because of the rain. And they're heading back home.

YORK MILLER: And we started to remark about how much gas we were each passing.

RACHAEL: Wondering what was causing all that.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

RACHAEL: They considered diet.

YORK MILLER: Granola and then various freeze-dried stuff.

RACHAEL: And then they thought, like, are we just focusing on it because we're stuck in this small, enclosed space?

YORK MILLER: For longer than usual.

RACHAEL: And then one of them wondered if this had anything to do with ...

YORK MILLER: We were up at 12 to 13 thousand feet.

RACHAEL: ... altitude. And Boyle's Law.

LATIF: Boyle's Law?

YORK MILLER: The ideal gas equation.

RACHAEL: Which is when it comes to gas, any gas ...

YORK MILLER: As pressure goes down, volume goes up.

RACHAEL: So just imagine walking up a mountain. As you go higher, the pressure goes lower, and the gas in your intestines is expanding.

LULU: Right. Okay.

LATIF: Right.

RACHAEL: Ballooning outwards, until you really have no other option but to let it out. And so according to Boyle's Law, farts increase as the elevation does. So York and Paul ...

YORK MILLER: We started to compose a letter ...

RACHAEL: To a medical journal. They called this phenomenon HAFE.

YORK MILLER: High Altitude Flatus Expulsion.

RACHAEL: And they wanted it to have a very official name.

YORK MILLER: To fit in with the general high-altitude literature.

RACHAEL: They submit it. And let's just say people resonate with the topic.

YORK MILLER: I'm sure that this HAFE paper is the—is the most-cited thing I've ever published. I'm kind of a big fish in a small pond in that farting area.

RACHAEL: [laughs] It's a really bubbly pond. [laughs]

YORK MILLER: Yeah, I guess so. [laughs]

RACHAEL: Do you think that the same ...

RACHAEL: And so I asked York, is this what's happening on airplanes also?

YORK MILLER: Well it may be. I mean ...

RACHAEL: Airplanes are usually pressurized to about 8,000 feet, meaning they're pumping air into the cabin at a level that's not sea level, but a level that is basically the height of a mountain.

LULU: Oh, so they're pumping in thinner air!

LATIF: Hmm.

RACHAEL: Yes, they pump in thinner air.

LATIF: So but why wouldn't they do—why wouldn't they just pressurize to land level and not Fart Mountain level?

LULU: [laughs] Yeah!

RACHAEL: Because if there's too much pressure inside this airplane, the airplane could burst.

LULU: Okay, fair. Fair. Okay, good call. Good call, good call. I'm down with that decision.

LATIF: Yeah. Great.

RACHAEL: And airplanes, they could pressurize it to 6,000 feet instead of 8,000 feet. They've done it before in certain airplanes. But those airplanes are more expensive.

LULU: So does that mean there are certain airlines that are like, "You know what? We do it up right. You got sea-level pressure in here." And others are like, "Yeah, we're skimping. It's mountain pressure. There's gonna be more farts."

RACHAEL: Yeah. Theoretically, you could assume that those more-expensive airplanes have less of an effect on the body, and therefore have fewer farts on them.

LULU: Oh, I hate it! And—and again, the thing that I'm actually mad at is money. It's like, there it is lurking in all these stories.

LATIF: Yeah, it's like we set it up in the beginning as this civilization in the sky and, you know, here are three moments that we've found where, you know, we could've prioritized human dignity and comfort, but no, we chose not to.

LULU: Yes. Yes. Yes. It is like, everywhere you look in this little metal tube you find capitalism over humanity.

LATIF: Yes.

LULU: All right. Well, should we get off this plane?

LATIF: Let's do it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, flight attendant: Hello, everyone. We're beginning our final descent.]

RACHAEL: Wait, wait, wait. Before we go, I just have one last little tidbit that I think could help us clear the air.

LATIF: [laughs]

LULU: [laughs] Let it rip.

RACHAEL: Okay. So I talked to this pilot named Lou.

LOU BOYER: Lou Boyer, I'm a 747 captain.

RACHAEL: And Lou helped me realize we are not the only civilization flying around up in the clouds.

LOU BOYER: I've flown just about every animal you can think of over the years.

RACHAEL: And you two buckle up and put your seats in the upright position for what I'm about to tell you next.

LATIF: Okay. All right.

RACHAEL: In his 30-plus years of flying, Lou has flown bears ...

LOU BOYER: Horses all the time. Small containers of reptiles. You know, we get snakes.

RACHAEL: Samuel L. Jackson was not lying.

RACHAEL: There's actually snakes on planes?

LOU BOYER: Yeah. And we flew 562 llamas. When we took off at least, it was 562 llamas, and when we landed it was 564 because we had two live births while we were en route.

RACHAEL: Wow!

RACHAEL: Lou has flown fish and cows and elephants.

LOU BOYER: I've flown whales, I've flown tigers. I've flown everything.

RACHAEL: You've flown whales?

LOU BOYER: I don't know. They needed a whale I guess in Japan for an aquarium, and they don't have one, I guess. They fly one in, you know? I mean it's ...

RACHAEL: He's flying whales, folks! [laughs]

LOU BOYER: Yeah!

RACHAEL: I'm picturing, like, Noah's ark.

LOU BOYER: Yeah, that's a pretty good imagination there. They just don't roam freely on the main deck.

RACHAEL: Do they have like big—big giant aquarium pools that you just—like one a time you plop a whale onto the plane?

LOU BOYER: Yeah, sort of. It's its own little capsule if you will—well, not little. They have their own compartments, so they can't really move around much. There's obviously a veterinarian there that, you know, they're sedated and everything else.

LULU: Are these planes specifically just animals, or are these like in the cargo on a passenger plane?

LATIF: Yeah.

RACHAEL: So it's a mix. Oftentimes these animals are just plopped on a cargo plane, but I did read about these two sloths that needed to get transported to a zoo, and they just blocked out seats for the sloths and the handlers at the front of the plane and they.re just sitting ...

LULU: Were they given drinks?

RACHAEL: Apparently they refused the peanuts. I don't know if that was like a writer-ly line or if they actually didn't want peanuts.

LATIF: [laughs] And their arms are so long you can just picture their hands, like, being draped over the armrest.

RACHAEL: And then one of them leans back and, like, reclines their seat.

LULU: Like, so slowly, like ...

RACHAEL: Yeah, it sounds like a Disney movie, but hearing about these animals that are flying in the sky, it reminds me of this absolute magic that happens on an airplane. Like, 200 years ago, a flying human probably sounded about as crazy as a flying whale, and now every single day hundreds of thousands of us are up in the sky in our own little tanks. And we're breathing out of thin air, and being taken care of by our flight attendant handlers, and going to the bathroom and watching Bridget Jones's Diary in a place we never were meant to. And even I get tired of that amazingness, and I focus instead on the small amount of legroom and the sad little meals and the farts in the air, but I—I think next time I fly I'm just gonna try to remember that I'm a flying whale.

LULU: Is that the end? Did we make it to the end?

RACHAEL: Yes.

LULU: Yeah! [laughs]

LATIF: Not even close. I—I have so many more questions here, yeah.

RACHAEL: Right? Imagine, like, a farting whale?

LULU: No! Can we—are we done yet?

LATIF: But maybe their blowholes sort of take care of all of that.

RACHAEL: Yeah, farting above.

LULU: Although these are different issues because is a blowhole about, like, a lung?

LATIF: Yeah, I wonder. That's a great question. Okay, we're here.

LULU: Whew! Thank goodness!

LATIF: Okay, so this episode was reported and produced by Matt Kielty, Simon Adler and Rachael Cusick, with production help from Sindhu Gnanasambandan and mixing help from Arianne Wack. It was edited by Pat Walters, and our flight attendant was none other than Mr. David Gebel.

LULU: Bravo, bravo! Special thanks to Natalie Compton, Julia Longoria, Mike Arnot and everyone at Gate Gourmet. If you want to learn more about the history of airplane food, check out Richard Foss's Food In the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies.

LATIF: Thank you. I hope you have safe travels whether you are a farting human or a farting whale.

LULU: [laughs] One thing I wanted to recommend during this travel time, which can also be emotionally complicated, our colleagues over at Death, Sex and Money have a truly awesome series about estrangement that is out right now. It talks about family estrangement, it talks about people who are thinking about estranging themselves, people who have been estranged against their will. It looks at it from all kinds of angles, and I personally have listened to every single one. Sounded very powerful. You can check that out over at Death, Sex and Money and just click on the episodes that have "Estrangement." Bye-bye!

LATIF: Bye-bye. Bye-bye!

LULU: Bye-bye!

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Sven calling from Storrs, Connecticut. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]



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