Why Do People Applaud When Planes Land?

Actually, they don’t. But imagine how annoying it would be if they did.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

A few years back, the comedian Chelsea Handler used to tell this joke on stage: “There are two types of people I don’t trust,” she’d say. “People who don’t drink while on medication and people who clap when the plane lands.”

It’s funny because it’s true: Why should pilots be congratulated for managing to do their jobs without killing hundreds of people? (As Handler once pointed out on Twitter, #thatswhattheyresupposedtofuckingdo.) It’s not just a comedian’s pet peeve; frustration with the idiotic cabin clap appears to be widespread. “Please Don’t Clap When the Plane Lands,” wrote the staff of Condé Nast Traveler in a signed editorial last year. “If the pilot navigates a bumpy landing with skill and style, I’ll clap,” one editor declared. “But I don’t give participation trophies.” Even cockpit personnel seem to find the practice irksome: “Applauding implies that a smooth landing is an exceptional accomplishment, rather than the routine work of a qualified pilot,” one explained on Yahoo Answers in 2011, in response to the post, “Clapping on airplane when landing?” This person continued: “I personally consider applause to be an insult, since it implies that I can’t land smoothly unless I get lucky.”

So who are these airborne clappers, and what makes them clap like airborne seals? When did the practice start, what’s it for, and will it ever go away? I spent some time cruising online forums in search of answers to these questions.

But the more I learned about the history of airplane applause and the history of sneering at the same, the more I came to doubt the premise of my hunt. The phenomenon itself may be exaggerated in the minds of those who mock it. Indeed, I now suspect there are very few cabin clappers in the wild and that a pilot’s unearned bravos and bravas are not so much a scourge that ought to be curtailed as a curmudgeon’s fantasy of something that would in fact be quite annoying if it really happened on the regular. I mean to say that my pet peeve, and Handler’s, is more or less ginned up.

It’s not that no one ever celebrates the final moment of flight. (You can find plenty of examples of the cabin clap on YouTube.) But these are freak events. An airplane’s landing cheer exists, but it rarely gets deployed. When it does it’s often for a special reason—a touchdown in a heavy storm, perhaps, or under some other form of flight duress. This is not the cabin clap we mean when we call the clapper silly or suspicious, though. No, we’re referring to a different, maybe apocryphal variety: the applause that has no rationale—a knee-jerk cheer for a plane’s routine arrival.

This latter version of the landing clap, dopey and unearned, has long been made the object of ridicule, if not nativist derision. Indeed, an early piece about the practice by a travel writer, published by the New York Times in 1997, claims we caught the clap from foreigners: Cheering for a touchdown is a “common yet enigmatic phenomenon of modern air travel,” the author writes, though one that’s seldom heard on domestic routes. Clappers aren’t from America, he says; they’re passengers from overseas, “returning to their native soil,” and the loudest perpetrators are those who happen to possess a high degree of “cultural passion.” The Spaniards, for example, are vibrant landing-clappers; so are the Brazilians and airplane passengers from Italy. Then again, the piece also adds that “even the famously unemotional Japanese engage in the Landing Clap;” along with all the patriotic Russians and Germans who have journeyed back to their motherlands.

This ethno-national finger-pointing forms a common thread through discussions of the landing clap. Spend enough time in these debates, and you’ll be informed (once again) that clapping is a German thing, or a pastime of the Russians; or else that it’s particular to Greece or Italy; ubiquitous on Asian flights; or particular to Israeli passengers; or Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos or Canadians. You’ll learn that people used to clap a lot on domestic flights in Czechoslovakia. You’ll read, from time to time, that landing cheers are “mostly a U.S. thing.”

These stereotypes can’t all be true, of course. The round-robin claims should make us more suspicious: If Germans really clap for landing, and so do Russians, Asians, Israelis, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos, Canadians, and Americans, well then applause would be more or less ubiquitous on commercial flights, which it’s clearly not. Yet everyone who believes in landing claps—and finds them quaint, silly, or suspicious—seems inclined to pin the custom on the passengers of another, less sophisticated culture. We don’t cheer at airplane landings. They do.

In a slight variation on this theme, some will claim that landing-clappers aren’t from another country; they’re from another time. We used to cheer on landing, this theory goes, back when people weren’t quite so used to flying, and when flying wasn’t quite so safe. Now, in recent years, this custom has subsided. We’ve gotten savvier and less easily impressed. “In my experience, clapping on landing was way more common a few years ago,” wrote one user in a long debate on “In the past 25 years, I find that it happens less and less,” another said.

I’m dubious of this idea, that people used to clap and now they’ve stopped. I mean, no one even cheered the dawn of human flight. When Wilbur and Orville Wright gave their first public demonstrations at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the assembled reporters were impassive, according to David McCullough’s biography of the brothers. “This spectacle was so startling, so bewildering to the senses in that year 1908, that we all stood like so many marble men,” one observer wrote. “Here on this lonely beach was being performed the greatest act of the ages,” another said, “but there were no spectators and no applause save the booming of the surf and the startled cries of the sea birds.”

Certainly in the age of modern aviation, those accounts of landing cheers that do exist tend to link them to some specific cause or calamity. In 1991, for example, an Alaska Airlines passenger demanded to be let off the plane before it took off because he’d learned a woman would be at the flight’s controls. Newspapers made a point of saying the remaining passengers applauded for the pilot when she later landed smoothly in Seattle. Landing claps were also noted in January of 2000, on flights that landed safely in the wee hours of New Year’s Day: Passengers were glad for having survived the Y2K computer bug. The following autumn, for a brief spell in the aftermath of 9/11, news reports observed that passengers were cheering “boring flights” with safe arrivals.

Among the other, reported blips of cabin clapping are claims, made every now and then, that certain airlines have been making use of “clap tracks.” The editorial in Condé Nast Traveler asserts that Ryanair, the low-cost Irish carrier, pipes smatterings of fake applause over the PA so as to goose an ersatz cabin cheer. The airline has been singled out for this chicanery by others, too, though its head of communications denies the charges, telling me there is frequent clapping aboard Ryanair, but that it’s both natural and heartfelt. (The airline’s pre-recorded victory trumpet may do some work to spur applause.)

The most common form of landing cheer has always been the one that celebrates avoidance of catastrophe. It’s for captains who have earned their plaudits facing up, Sully-esque, to some dire airplane hazard. Consider Southwest Airlines Flight 812, in April 2011: A hole tore though the cabin roof, flight attendants passed out from lack of oxygen, and the cockpit crew lost access to its main controls. People clapped when that plane touched down and then began to hug one another. “It was unreal,” one told the Associated Press. “Everybody was [acting] like they were high school chums.” Or what about the American Airlines flight from 2009 that touched down one Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a very heavy fog, before veering off the runway and scraping a wing against the ground. Miraculously, no passengers were injured. When the tumult stopped, people cheered in gratitude and relief.

These are standard cabin claps, to the extent that clapping is a standard practice at all. (Even in these situations, the pilots may not hear the sound above the cockpit noise.)

But they themselves bring to mind another question. Unless you’ve flown a plane yourself, and understand the tribulations of a tricky landing, then how are you supposed to know when a bumpy touchdown means your pilot has excelled, or when it means the opposite? Who are you to judge her skill, let alone applaud it?

Take that Charlotte flight, for example. A subsequent investigation found the cockpit crew had known the plane was off its course yet refused to take a second pass. According to the Wall Street Journal, the pilots chose instead—mistakenly—to take their autopilot offline. “Crew fatigue might have been an issue,” the paper noted. If that’s the case, the passengers may have clapped in celebration of their crew’s incompetence.

Similarly, during a summer thunderstorm in Toronto in 2005, an Air France flight with several hundred passengers tried to land amid the rain and lightning. “Just before touching ground, it was all black in the plane, there was no more light, nothing,” one passenger later told a reporter. A second later, the airplane landed with a bump, and the frightened cabin erupted in applause at what appeared to be an expert landing. “But after that,” the same man continued, “we [felt] bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.”

It did not take long for the passengers to realize that their clap was premature. The plane came down too fast, barreled off the runway and rolled into a ravine, where it burst into flames. It looked like the left engine had exploded. Smoke filled the cabin. “The light became very, very yellow by the fire’s flame,” the passenger continued, “and we said that were all going to die at that moment, and the airplane continued to roll.” No one died, but some among the passengers who had moments earlier been clapping for the pilot came away with serious injuries. A few years later a class-action suit against the airline would be settled for $10 million, after investigators found that the pilots had missed important signals and failed to “make the standard callouts” for the situation.

Maybe that’s the hidden problem with the landing clap: Even when we think applause is well-deserved, we may be off the mark.