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Radiolab / The Flight Before Christmas | Radiolab

The Flight Before Christmas | Radiolab

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In the holiday season, millions of people travel by plane, celebrating the miracle of human flight. But flying can be both beautiful and stressful, as it challenges our humanity and tests our endurance. In this episode of Radiolab, titled “The Flight Before Christmas,” the team explores various aspects of flying commercial, including the controversial issue of reclining seats and the decline in the quality of airplane food.

Main Takeaways

The Recline Dilemma: Personal Comfort vs. Others’ Well-being

  • The recline button on a plane seat presents a moral dilemma: prioritize personal comfort or the comfort of others.
  • Some suggest everyone should recline to maximize happiness for all, but this still imposes a decision on others.
  • Dan’s solution is that no one should recline, as it is a selfish move that prioritizes personal comfort over others’ well-being.
  • Conflicts between recliners and non-recliners have sparked debates and tensions on flights.

Airplane Food: From Gourmet to Mass Production

  • Airplane food used to be luxurious and delicious, with airlines like Scandinavian Airlines, Northwest Orient, and Alitalia offering gourmet meals.
  • The decline in quality of airplane food may have started with the removal of olives by American Airlines CEO Robert Crandle to cut costs.
  • 9/11 led to airlines selling their flight kitchens, resulting in mass production of airplane food in massive warehouses.
  • The taste of food can be negatively impacted by the environment of an airplane, affecting the overall dining experience.

The Solution: Transactional Gift-Giving

  • Asking politely to not recline or move seats is often ineffective in resolving conflicts.
  • A survey suggests that offering to buy a drink or snack for someone who was going to recline is the most effective solution.
  • Transactional gift-giving can help address the problem of reclining seats and the sale of space twice.
  • Charles Spence, Head of the Cross-Model Research Laboratory at Oxford University, recommends this approach.

The High Altitude Flatus Expulsion (HAFE) Phenomenon

  • High altitude can cause an increase in flatulence due to Boyle’s Law.
  • Two men on a backpacking trip coined the term HAFE and published a paper on increased flatulence at high altitude.
  • The phenomenon of increased flatulence is also observed on airplanes, which can cause discomfort and panic for some passengers.
  • The type of airplane and altitude may affect the frequency of flatulence.

Animals on Airplanes: Transporting Llamas, Tigers, and Whales

  • Airlines have transported various animals, including llamas, tigers, and even whales.
  • Animals are transported in their own compartments to prevent excessive movement.
  • The experience of flying on planes reminds us of the incredible feat of human flight and its magical nature.


The Recline Dilemma and Transactional Gift-Giving

The debate over reclining seats on airplanes highlights the struggle between personal comfort and consideration for others. While some argue for a universal recline to maximize happiness, others believe that no one should recline to prioritize others’ well-being. To address this issue, transactional gift-giving, such as offering to buy a drink or snack for someone who was going to recline, can help resolve conflicts and create a more harmonious flying experience.

The Evolution of Airplane Food

From gourmet meals served by airlines like Scandinavian Airlines, Northwest Orient, and Alitalia to the mass production of airplane food in warehouses, the quality of in-flight dining has declined. American Airlines’ cost-cutting measures, including the removal of olives, set a precedent for reducing the dining experience. The environment of an airplane can also affect taste perception. However, despite these challenges, the podcast suggests that the enjoyment of food can be enhanced by considering the multi-sensory experience and creating a more pleasant dining atmosphere.

The High Altitude Flatus Expulsion and Animal Transport

High altitude can lead to increased flatulence, known as the High Altitude Flatus Expulsion (HAFE) phenomenon. This occurrence, observed both on mountains and airplanes, can cause discomfort and panic for passengers. Additionally, the podcast explores the transportation of animals on planes, highlighting the measures taken to ensure their safety and comfort during the journey.


“The Flight Before Christmas” delves into the complex experiences and challenges of flying commercial. From the recline dilemma to the decline in airplane food quality, the podcast offers insights into the various aspects of air travel. By exploring potential solutions, such as transactional gift-giving, the podcast encourages listeners to reflect on the importance of empathy and consideration for others in the confined space of an airplane.

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