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Can pilots hear clapping?

Here’s why people clap when planes land

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The INSIDER Summary:

  • Whether you hear clapping on a flight depends on where your plane is landing.
  • There’s a correlation between vacation destinations and clapping.
  • Clapping is not usually a compliment to the pilot, though occasionally a pilot will earn applause for a good landing despite bad weather.
  • Socioeconomic factors are also involved.

Flying from New York City (JFK) into New Orleans (MSY) for Mardi Gras last week, we noticed something slightly out-of-the-ordinary after the plane landed: People applauded.

This rarely happens when flying into JFK — a phenomenon corroborated by Travel + Leisure digital editor Amy Schellenbaum, who noticed clapping when she landed in Jamaica for a recent mini-vacation — and no applause whatsoever upon her return home to snowy New York.

Why do people clap when planes land, and where do they tend to applaud? For answers, we reached out to two flight attendants and a 30-year world traveler.

Kara Mulder, a flight attendant with eight years’ experience, and the blogger behind «The Flight Attendant Life,» thinks the phenomenon is largely related to the nature of the destination: “When you’re going to New York, most people are going for business or going back home,” she says. “When you’re going to Vegas, most people are going to party.” (Speaking of which, people are very enthusiastic about getting to Vegas and availing themselves of its various charms: “Eighty percent of the time, [passengers] are gonna clap.”)

Mulder largely hears applause when she’s headed to a vacation destination: Las Vegas; Hawaii; New Orleans. “I’ve always thought about it as annoying when people clap on landing,” she says. “I do this every single day, [but] a lot of people don’t do this every single day. Usually if I hear clapping I’m like, ‘Oh, ok, that’s fine, but as a flight attendant…’” It gets a little old.

Does she think it’s a compliment to the pilot on a safe or smooth landing? “I don’t think so,” she says, although she allows that very occasionally, a pilot will earn applause for a good landing despite bad weather, as recently occurred when she arrived in London.

Marisa Robertson-Textor, a freelance food and travel journalist (and, full disclosure, friend), has been traveling extensively since she was a child, spending long stretches in Russia. She estimates that she’s flown into at least 200 different airports in her life, but that she didn’t encounter the clapping phenomenon until she flew into Puerto Rico with a college roommate in tow. Robertson-Textor remembers being surprised, and thought it was charming—“a perfect entrée to the magic that is Puerto Rico.”

Her roommate Rosa, a Puerto Rican by birth, explained to her that, “When people get back to Puerto Rico, they always clap.” Robertson-Textor started paying attention to which airports include applause upon arrival, and is of the opinion that “people clap when there’s a population where for whatever reason, economic or political, it’s a diaspora, with people returning to their homeland.” She’s noticed clapping in lands as varied as Moscow and Dublin, Bali and Mexico City, Myanmar and Italy, Kazakhstan and Thailand.

Mulder would add that there’s “a socioeconomic thing” at play, too: “If you’re flying every other week you’re not going to clap when you land; it’s normal. People who travel more aren’t going to clap as much.” (This, perhaps, explains to some extent why the applause phenomenon downright infuriates some frequent travelers, who are more accustomed to taking off and landing. The U.K.’s Daily Mail, not mincing words, proclaimed the custom “ridiculous.”)

She suggests that culture is a factor, as well; she can’t remember Parisians or Scandinavians enthusiastically applauding when landing in their home nations. Mulder hosts segments on a Youtube channel, and says she recently walked about East London asking strangers if they wanted to be in her Youtube video.

“Everybody,” she says soberly, “said no.” A Danish colleague laughed at her, saying no Dane would have helped her either: “People just don’t put themselves out there like that.”

But Robertson-Textor thinks it’s more about the lifestyle of a nation’s inhabitants than their inherent level of sociability: “Scandinavians have six to eight weeks of vacation a year, and at this point much easier to fly around Europe than take the train,” she says. “It’s not fair to say that it’s cultural; it’s much more about what people’s lives are…where you are in the world hierarchy. Do you live in a wealthy country or a poor country?” If it’s someone’s first flight, say to reunite with family in a land they emigrated from long ago, there may well be an understandable instinct to applaud upon reaching the destination.

As for whether this is largely a domestic or international phenomenon, Heather Poole, 20-year flight attendant and author of «Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet,» emailed, “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard passengers clap, but that might be because I fly mostly domestic routes. Clapping mostly only happens on international flights.”

Pro tip from Poole: “I’m not sure why they clap. But if they don’t clap, and you clap, everyone will start clapping along with you.”

If you didn’t start the applause, but are wondering who did, maybe look for a glint in the eye of the person wearing a kerchief. Emails Poole: “I know flight attendants who do it just for fun.”

Here’s why people clap when planes land

Confession: I’ve clapped for a plane landing. While I’d never think to applaud when a subway train reaches my stop, there’s something joyful about going from air to solid ground. I don’t clap after every flight and I’m not a nervous flier, but it sometimes feels appropriate to celebrate the fact that I’m one step closer to being on vacation, reuniting with my family or walking through my apartment door and collapsing on my couch.

But depending who you ask, the post-landing round of applause can be cringeworthy. Some travelers hate when people clap on planes — and they’re pretty vocal about their contempt.

Why do people clap on planes?

No one is more qualified to comment on clapping than Clark McPhail, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois who has extensively studied applause. Clapping is learned «early in life,» McPhail said in an email, explaining that parents and caregivers even help infants learn how to clap by bringing a baby’s hands together or demonstrating applause. Later in life, we learn to clap «without being asked to do so» during concerts, at pep rallies, speeches and sporting events, McPhail explained.

«Passengers are likely to show approval by clapping for the pilot’s skill in achieving a safe landing,» McPhail said about applause on airplanes. Plus, clapping has the capacity to spread, McPhail added, meaning a couple of claps could spark a couple more. But it’s not necessarily contagious. «We may suppress our own clapping when we do not share surrounding others evaluating or appreciation of whatever it is they are applauding; more often than not, we join in,» he noted.

Who claps on planes? The passenger’s destination and the type of traveler can make a difference. Flights to vacation destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii and Orlando often elicit a landing clap, Kara Mulder, flight attendant and blogger behind The Flight Attendant Life, explained in a phone interview.

«I find it weird,» she said. «At the same time, I have to understand that I’m flying all the time . They want to clap [because] they are excited to be somewhere.»

Funnily enough, Mulder said pilots can’t even hear the applause, and flight attendants usually won’t report whether a landing was received with an ovation. «Generally, nobody cares,» Mulder said. «I think I have told a pilot before, but I was friends with him and I was teasing him. It’s kind of a joke.»

However, McPhail said the fact that pilots can’t hear the clapping is irrelevant. «It doesn’t matter if the pilots can’t hear!» he said. «Passengers clap habitually for actions or events of which they approve.»

According to Rachel Wilson, a flight attendant who runs the blog Dubai Diaries, passengers in business class clap less compared to those in economy or customers of low-cost carriers where there is no business class. She first noticed people performing the landing clap when she was a passenger on budget carrier Ryanair.

A passenger’s nationality may also influence their clapping, Mulder said. «Americans are more expressive. A flight with mostly Asians or Scandinavians — it would be rare for them to clap,» she said.

Americans often travel abroad less than other nationalities, and 64% of Americans have never left the U.S. Air travel tends to be more common in Europe, where countries are closer and people are more likely to have a passport, Muddler said — which means these passengers, who are probably experienced travelers, are less likely to perform landing claps, Mulder noted.

The history of clapping on planes

Though it now might be a joke among flight crews and seasoned travelers, the landing clap had serious origins — and it’s been around for decades. Americans have been applauding after landings since at least 1948.

The earliest record of passengers doing a landing clap was in a Cincinnati Enquirer article published on Nov. 20, 1948, Museum of Flight researcher Bruce Florsheim noted in an email.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, a 40-person American Airlines aircraft had been circling Cincinnati Airport for 15 minutes when the instrument panel that helps the pilot deploy the landing gear suddenly started to malfunction. When the pilots received radio confirmation that searchlights saw the landing gear was in place, the plane landed without a hitch and passengers applauded.

«When the plane landed safely, all of the passengers clapped their hands in thankful relief,» the article stated.

Other than clapping as a «joyful sight of relief,» passengers might also clap when they return to their homeland, Florsheim said. People often applaud when they land in Israel, the Jewish homeland established in 1948.

«It happens all the time,» Marvin Goldman, who has flown on Israeli airline El Al nearly every year since his first trip in 1978, said. Goldman also happens to have world’s largest collection of El Al memorabilia.

Jack Guez/Getty Images

«[Passengers] have an emotional attachment to the land of Israel, to the people — it’s an emotional experience to land there for the first time or for a return trip,» Goldman said. «When the airline first flew in 1949, passengers would tug on the uniforms of the flight crew, which had a Star of David, to see if they were real. They couldn’t believe it was a Jewish state with its own airline.»

As for the landing clap — which Goldman said he’s heard every time he travels to Israel — he said El Al «doesn’t even have to encourage it . it’s something that’s spontaneous among the passengers.»

Is the landing clap socially acceptable?

Armed with the knowledge that flight attendants and pilots joke about the landing clap, I looked for some reassurance that I wasn’t in flagrant violation of an unwritten rule of flying. Thomas Farley, aka Mister Manners, a New York-based etiquette expert, weighed in.

«For infrequent air travelers or nervous fliers, a round of spontaneous applause upon landing is perhaps the most natural form of expressing relief, gratitude and excitement about reaching a destination,» Farley said. «As long as the clapping is brief and doesn’t morph into the whole plane doing the wave, I don’t see an etiquette issue here.»

Farley also provided some advice for clap haters: «I’d say you have three choices: Join in, grin and bear it or keep your earbuds [in] until you’ve reached the gate.»

Correction: June 28, 2017

Why Do People Clap When The Plane Lands?

Alex Costa

Alex Costa

You’re off to your honeymoon. As the plane lands, your spouse begins to clap. You give them that look and think, ‘why do people clap when the plane lands?’

Landing claps have been around for a while, but no one knows why. Something is thrilling about touching the solid ground coming from the air. Many people clap to appreciate a safe landing, while some are excited to arrive at their favorite destination. Yet, some others clap just for the fun of it.

Interestingly, clapping upon landing has become a global phenomenon. No matter what part of the world you are flying to, you are bound to encounter some clappers. But there can be exceptions depending on the routes and time of the flight.

An experienced flight attendant and an avid blogger, Kara Mulder speculates that plane clapping has a lot to do with frequent flyers on the flight. If you fly often, chances are you will not clap when you land because it is an everyday thing.

Table of contents

‍ Why Do People Clap on Landing?

There are several reasons; some are cultural while others are psychological. Let us look at a few of them.

The Survival Instinct

Humans are not built to fly. But today, we have more humans flying higher and faster than any bird could even imagine. Deep inside, we have a little fear of going out of our ordinary nature. For new flyers, this fear is obvious. Seasoned flyers, however, learn to accept flying as their nature and know how to overcome aerophobia.

Landing is a moment perceived as survival, even for seasoned travelers. The feeling of wheels bouncing underneath can be very dramatic. Most people do not even realize that they are holding their breaths and have tensed their muscles amid the approach.

After the landing announcement, we feel that we are safe. There is no better way to celebrate our freedom from anxiety and fear than clapping.

End of the Show

Flying is still a special experience for many of us, and landing is like bringing down the curtain. For certain people, it is but natural to clap at the end of a performance. Another thing that could make flying feel like a show is the nice and polite voice of the captain and cabin crew, which can make us feel like an audience.

It is Cultural

If you have visited multiple countries on the globe, you will know that passengers from certain countries clap more than others. Take Romania and Russia, for example. They are both known for thunderous applause after the plane lands.

El Al airlines of Israel also has a culture of applause whenever it arrives back home. People express the love and joy of coming back safely to their hometown.

Clapping Has History

Clapping is a curious ritual. We have been striking our hands together for thousands of years. The gesture is universally understood and practiced. Any performance that ends without applause seems awkward. You will find people clapping at sporting events and even as a movie ends in a theater. We all universally agree that a little clapping never hurt anyone.

But some claps can be negative, giving a waiter a slow clapping just as they have dropped a plate on the ground. This clapping is often considered sarcastic, and it is best to steer clear of these. Then there is some controversial clapping, and on top of this list are landing claps.

Although seasoned travelers and flight crews now perceive it as a joke, landing claps have been around for decades. It is believed that we have been clapping for landings since 1948.

On November 20, 1948, an American Airlines aircraft had trouble with the landing gear instrument panel. The plane was carrying forty people on board and was circling Cincinnati airport as the pilots were trying to resolve the issue of deploying the landing gear.

When the pilots received confirmation over the radio that the searchlights were able to see the landing gear correctly deployed, the plane landed without issues. As the plane approached taxiing speed, all the passengers clapped in a thankful relief.

Clapping Varies by Route

Most clapping is done on flights to vacation destinations. Landing in Orlando, Hawaii, or Las Vegas often stimulates huge applause. It could be because the people are excited to be one step closer to their vacations.

Flights to remote destinations with less-experienced flyers also have many clappers. They love to appreciate the experience they had during the whole flight.

You can never be sure if a flight will have clappers. A veteran flight attendant believes domestic routes usually have more clappers, but another thinks international flights elicit more applause.

Clapping is Controversial

Many anti-clappers have an issue with applauding the pilot for simply doing their job. You don’t clap for the subway driver when they stop at a station, or for a doctor when they write a prescription, or for a valet when they bring your car out for you.

Flight crew often find it weird when the passengers clap. But they are used to it and understand that it is ok to be excited when arriving at your favorite destination. On the other hand, the cockpit door is soundproof. The pilots cannot hear the applause upon landing, and the flight attendants have better things to do than to inform pilots of ovations.

But quite frankly, nobody cares if the flight crew approves or even if pilots cannot hear them. Passengers clap habitually and out of joy for any event that they approve of. For infrequent and nervous flyers, a round of applause works like therapy. They can express their relief and gratitude for arriving safely and vent off negative energy using the clapping motion.

Should I Clap When the Plane Lands?

Well, yes and no. It depends largely on the airline you are flying with, and the destination you are flying to. On some high-traffic routes, you might look weird clapping alone. While on others, you will be more comfortable going with the flow and joining your fellow passengers in a round of applause.

Some airlines promote clapping. El Al, for example, encourages its passengers to clap when they land in their hometown.

JetBlue produced an ad that showed people clapping when landing at their new destination.

On Ryanair, a fanfare used to play upon landing. It was followed by an announcement celebrating another on-time arrival, triggering the instincts of clappers. Sadly, the anti-clappers won this one. After a vote conducted by the airline, the airline toned down the catchy fanfare, and the on-time celebration announcement was taken off in 2014.

Why Clapping On Landing Is Becoming Rare Now

Clapping was a regular occurrence on planes in the 80s and 90s. But now, it is becoming fairly rare. There are two reasons for that. First off, more people are getting used to flying and do not find it an extraordinary experience anymore. People are beginning to feel a lot safer in the air. They now believe that the pilots are just doing their regular job when they try to bring down a 300-ton beast onto a strip 200 feet wide with precision.

You don’t have to clap on every flight. But sometimes, it just feels good to celebrate the fact that you are one step closer to meeting your family, starting your vacation, or even walking into your home sweet home and collapsing on the bed.

With the pilots not hearing you appreciate them and the crew finding it cringeworthy, you might be tempted not to waste your energy. But you have to focus on yourself first. If the clapping helps you vent off anxiety and fear or just brings some happiness and fun, why not go along with it. After all, a little applause never hurt anyone.


Alex Costa

Alex has logged close to 400 hours on his own Piper Cherokee and enjoys bush flying as it offers a chance to test out his skills in difficult situations. His favorite trip, and one he makes regularly, is to the Red Deer Forestry Airstrip.

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