Here's why people clap when planes land

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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.

An El Al Boeing 747 is seen parked on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel.
An El Al Boeing 747 is seen parked on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel. 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
An earlier version of this article misidentified Clark McPhail. He is a professor emeritus of sociology at at the University of Illinois.