Superstitions of Travelers: How Odd Can They Be?

What are the reasons why some passengers touch the fuselage of the aircraft before boarding? Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

Would you have any aversion to traveling as a passenger from Singapore to Helsinki during Friday the 13th on an aircraft operating as Finnair flight 666?

Northwest Airlines once reissued a ticket whose original number had 666 included in it for FlyerTalk member cerealmarketer — and there was no charge for the reissued ticket.

Would you refuse to remove your shoes until the light for the seat belt is not lit anymore while aboard an airplane as a passenger — and would that be considered more of a safety ritual than a superstition?

Superstitions are supposedly excessively credulous beliefs and reverences in things which you do not completely understand, such as supernatural beings or paranormal rituals. The origins of some superstitions are unknown — yet there are people who will faithfully follow them in the belief that they will ultimately avoid having bad things happen to them.

For example, FlyerTalk member QF WP admitted to “wearing a 9ct gold 747 on a chain around my neck – bought it in 1989 from a jewellery store in Zurich, Bucherer. On the day of flying, I always ‘rub it’ for luck (to ward off the evil thoughts of things like delays, cancellation, missing flights, crashing, etc).” In justification of that ritual, QF WP credits suffering from few delays and missed flights — and no aborted landings — as a result.

Scott McCartney — who writes The Middle Seat, a column for The Wall Street Journal — discusses the superstitions of travelers and of companies in the travel industry in this article, which includes the rituals of passengers patting the exterior of the aircraft just before boarding and kissing the fuselage. Note: if you cannot access the article using the link above, search for it on the Internet using the term The Oddest Airline Superstitions.

As noted above, it is important to not confuse habitual practices which contribute to safety procedures when compared to superstitious acts, of which there is no plausible explanation. For example, I always check to see where the inflatable life vest — if the aircraft is equipped with them — is located during the safety presentation at the beginning of a flight in case of a water landing. If I were to rub my arms three times on the armrests before the aircraft departs from the gate on every flight, that could be considered superstitious — unless I just happened to get my arms dirty before boarding the aircraft and rubbing them would be a bizarre form of cleaning them.

Rituals can also form from past experiences — such as always wanting an aisle seat instead of a window seat so that there is easy access to the lavatory, to use a bad example. Perhaps that particular passenger had a bad experience where he or she sat in a window seat and the passenger in the aisle seat was blocking access out of the row, leading to that habit. That is still not a superstitious act.

I have professed a number of times that I wash my hands often to prevent illness — and it works well for me, regardless of whether this prevention is merely psychosomatic. Washing my hands more often than the average person is certainly not a superstitious ritual for me.

It is also important to define the distinction between superstitious rituals and actions based on tradition. When Scott McCartney contacted me to interview me for the aforementioned article, I warned him that what I do on an airplane — such as listen to particular songs at specific times during a flight — are traditions which evoke pleasurable memories for me and are therefore not superstitions. Please click here if you are interested in reading about more details regarding the music to which I prefer to listen when I travel as a passenger on a commercial airplane and why.

I never ascribed to the aversion of the number 13. When a fellow FlyerTalk member sent a private message to me to give me the “thumbs up” on my being interviewed by Scott McCartney — whom I have met more than once — of The Wall Street Journal, I responded by saying that it is difficult for me to be superstitious when considering that I once lived right off of exit 13 of a limited access highway; there were 13 steps on both staircases in the house I lived in for 15 years; that the numbers of the ZIP code in which that house is located adds up to 13; and that both telephone numbers of that house had the number 13 in it.

In fact, I not only have no problem sitting in a seat located in the thirteenth row of an airplane or staying in a room on the thirteenth floor of a hotel property, but would actually do so on purpose. I really never did understand triskaidekaphobia — the fear of the number 13 — by travelers or companies in the travel industry.

Still — as Scott McCartney points out in his article:

“Travel is chock full of little superstitions, fluky talismans and fateful traditions, such as retiring the flight numbers of crashed planes. Of 102 airlines tracked by SeatGuru.com, 25 around the world have no Row 13s on their planes.

Before it merged with United Airlines, Continental Airlines avoided the number 13 religiously: no gate 13s at hub airports, no row 13s on airplanes.

Veterans from the airline say the triskaidekaphobia followed the crash of Flight 1713 in Denver in 1987. “After that, a lot of 13s were taken out of Continental Airlines,” said an executive who worked there at the time.”

Scott McCartney correctly quoted me that applause by passengers once an aircraft lands is annoying, in my opinion. I am certain they applaud because they are happy that they arrived at their destination safely — and there is certainly nothing wrong with being happy about that. However, you are far more likely to get injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident than be being a passenger on a commercial aircraft — do these people applaud every time they safely step out of a car?!?

Here is a short video clip from the Today show on NBC about the article written by Scott McCartney:

Perhaps superstitions emanate from actual occurrences which seem to have no basis for happening. Consider the experience of FlyerTalk member MeLuvMiles, who posted that “I was staying in this one Embassy Suite on central MA, and at night the TV kept on coming on. I kept shutting it down but of course it was turned on again. This happened 6 or 7 times over the course of the night.” Although FlyerTalk members offer their possible explanations on the causes of the experience of MeLuvMiles, what if there was no plausible explanation? Does superstition become validated?

Have you witnessed fellow travelers performing inexplicable rituals, such as dancing a jig or kicking the door just before boarding an aircraft? Do you perform what can be considered superstitious rituals yourself? Can performing acts steeped in superstition actually result in perceived benefits, ward off potential disasters or unwanted disruptions, or improve the travel experience?

What are your thoughts?

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Comments (Showing 6 of 6)

  • sdsearch at 7:49am October 12, 2013

    People in coach may be clapping when the plane lands because they’re so happy their journey in coach is about to end! 🙂 How often do you see people in business or first clapping when the plane lands?

    • Brian Cohen at 11:33am October 12, 2013

      I laughed out loud, nodding as I read what you wrote, sdsearch.
      Thank you for that laugh!

  • ffI at 5:05am October 13, 2013

    “I warned him that what I do on an airplane — such as listen to particular songs at specific times during a flight — are traditions which evoke pleasurable memories for me and are therefore not superstitions.”

    – Tradition to you perhaps, superstition to others. Certainly an obsessive compulsive ritual at least.

    • Brian Cohen at 2:20am October 14, 2013

      I don’t know about what I do being obsessive-compulsive, ffI, as I do not always listen to music every time I fly as a passenger on an airplane.
      Scott McCartney asked me what if I was unable to listen to the music during certain points of the flight. I replied that I either play them in my head, or I simply go without listening to the music. It does not affect my overall flight experience in any significant manner whatsoever.
      I use the music to re-create feelings which I have felt before; they were not formed as the result of believing in something which I do not completely understand; nor do I believe that the music will ward off evil or bring me good luck. It is purely for my enjoyment; and the way I listen to the music simply enhances my enjoyment — nothing more.

  • WildcatYXU at 6:32am October 13, 2013

    Keeping the shoes on during take-off and landing is actually common sense, not superstition.

  • Asiaflyguy at 6:08pm October 13, 2013

    I have seen my share of people doing strange things pre boarding and on board, not sure if I could catagorize their actions as supersticious of just darn weird, how would one know which is which…

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