The Real Reason People Touch the Airplane Before Boarding

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Oh, yes, fear of flight is one of my biggest phobias. I am really scared of flying. The last time I traveled, I was so nervous that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My husband is really good at comforting me, he holds my hand and says things that make me feel better but I still have this fear that never leaves. What I was left wondering was, what did I actually fear? Is it the heights, the confined space, or that eerie feeling of having no control when flying at 35,000 feet? Most likely, all of the above.

And here I was, in the queue to get on the next flight, attempting to take deep breaths and remain calm. And then I noticed something peculiar: Some people just tapped the plane once while others stood there with their hand on the fuselage for a few seconds as if it was a tradition. I couldn’t help but wonder, what’s up with that? Is there some kind of trick to it? Is it in some way beneficial to the safety of the plane or is it merely an oddity?

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As it turns out, this seemingly peculiar action is not as meaningless as I first assumed.

Now, let’s start with superstition. It is a fact that people are always superstitious by nature. We say knock on wood, don’t walk under ladders, and spill salt over our shoulders. Tapping the airplane is another one of those things that people do in order to feel like they have at least some control over something that is otherwise beyond their control. It is almost like having a good luck charm. In this way, when passengers are touching the plane, they are sending a message to fate and wish for a safe trip.

I spoke to my friend Lucy who often travels for work for her experience. “I started touching the plane after one particularly rough flight,” she told me. “I was so terrified that I swore I’d never fly again. But then I had to, for work. So, I made a deal with myself: touch the plane and it will be a safe flight,” and it is rather absurd but it does it for me. In order to reduce anxiety, people have come up with their own rituals that they perform before flying and one of them is touching the plane.

Besides superstition, there is also a psychological factor to look into. Think about it: airplane is this enormous, strong vehicle and being able to touch it is quite real and comforting. It just gives the whole idea of flying a bit more realism and a bit less fear. On my next flight, when I touched the plane, I felt some sort of bond like I was paying respect to the magnificent machine that would soon ferry me into the sky. It was oddly comforting.

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I spoke with another person who flies often, Mike, and he had a slightly different perspective. “To me, touching the plane is something that is done with respect,” he said. Mike said, ‘These machines are incredible feats of human ingenuity, and I feel like giving it a pat is my way of saying thank you. ’ This view made me look at the plane in a different way, and instead of being scared, I felt a sense of gratitude for what humans have created.

There is also a cultural aspect to this practice as well. In some cultures, people are allowed to touch or even bless cars before they set off on a journey to prevent accidents. This is true for airplanes for those who wish to seek the blessing of a higher power before flying. It is interesting to observe how cultural attitudes and individual practices combine to form such minor yet meaningful practices.

Having read all this, I must say that I am slightly less afraid and much more interested in aviation as a field. On the next flight I took I thought I would give it a go. While waiting in the queue, with my heart racing and hands sweating, I extended my hand and felt the metallic surface of the airplane. It was a simple gesture but it was as if the world had shifted. To my surprise, I felt slightly more comfortable as if I was part of a ritual that millions of travelers worldwide experience.

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I will probably never be completely comfortable with flying but now, I have something to help me through the anxiety. Toucing the airplane has become one of my pre-flight habits, which makes me feel comfort and connected. It is interesting how a rather mundane action can have such a deep significance, isn’t it?

So next time you’re boarding a flight and you see someone give the plane a little pat, you’ll know there is more to it than just the surface. It may be because of superstition, psychological comfort, respect or cultural practice, the act of touching the airplane has in one way or the the other helped people to deal with the fear and the mystery that comes with flying. And who knows? It might just help make your next flight a bit more enjoyable though.