According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than 2.9 million people traveled by air in the United States on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2023—more than on any day in the history of the airplane. That number broke a record set less than five months earlier, on the Friday before the Fourth of July, and the new record may not last long: Industry analysts predict the Friday before Christmas 2003 will be another blockbuster. So we took a trip of our own, into the Atlas Obscura archives for amazing stories of all things airplane to help you pass the time in the TSA line.

Decoding the Design of In-Flight Seat Belts

by Dan Nosowitz

What is the deal with the airplane seat belt? It is not like other seat belts. It is a lap belt only, in two pieces, secured by an industrial-feeling flip-flop buckle that sits directly in the center of the lap. Car seat belts are not like this. Even race car seat belts are not like this. In fact, no other modern seat belt is like this. Surprisingly, this is a question few people want to answer.

Clara Adams was known as the "first flighter" and the "maiden of maiden voyages," and she became a good luck charm to pilots and passengers alike.
Clara Adams was known as the “first flighter” and the “maiden of maiden voyages,” and she became a good luck charm to pilots and passengers alike. ILLUSTRATION: EDUARDO RAMÓN FOR ATLAS OBSCURA; (ADAMS) BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

The Woman Who Taught the World How to Fly

by April White

“The concept that planes would carry passengers—it wasn’t a given,” historian Barbara Ganson, of Florida Atlantic University, says of the early days of flight. “Even the military wasn’t convinced it was a good idea.” Enter Clara Adams, “the maiden of maiden voyages,” who held tickets for every major inaugural flight through the dawn of air travel, and helped convince the general public to give flying a try. You can thank her next time there’s a delay.

The Last Plane to Depart Tegel Airport Survived Hijackers and Cold War

by Susannah Edelbaum

When Berlin’s Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” Airport shuttered in 2020 one plane remained: a decrepit Boeing 707 that survived a 1970 hijacking and an undercover flight into West Berlin, but not decades of exposure to the elements, with only a stand of pine trees at the edge of the airport for shelter.

Nik Sennhauser plated this Japanese breakfast on his set of vintage Japan Airlines dishware.
Nik Sennhauser plated this Japanese breakfast on his set of vintage Japan Airlines dishware. COURTESY NIK SENNHAUSER

Meet the Man Recreating Air Travel’s Most Glorious Meals

by Anne Ewbank, Senior Associate Editor, Gastro Obscura

Air travel is often something to be endured, not enjoyed, especially when it comes to food. In the United States, we’ve all gotten grimly accustomed to gritty cookies and overpriced boxes of shelf-stable jerky and rubbery cheese—but that’s not what’s on the menu everywhere in the world and it wasn’t always like this. Air-travel enthusiast Nik Sennhauser has set out to prove it to skeptical American travelers, devoting his Instagram feed to recreating the most glorious meals of air travel.

Planespotting With the ‘Avgeeks’

by Justin Franz

“Avgeeks,” or aviation enthusiasts, watch the sky for interesting and unique aircraft. Some like to fly on rare planes or exotic routes. Others simply keep track of the planes that they see, in notebooks and spreadsheets. Some take photos, especially of rare or even one-of-a-kind paint schemes. A stripe or color block that most people in airports never notice? To a passionate avgeek it could be a hidden treasure.

A mobile lounge and plane at Dulles, c. 1960.
A mobile lounge and plane at Dulles, c. 1960. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-krb-00771

The Lonely Ballad of the Dulles Airport Mobile Lounge

by Veronique Greenwood

If your travels ever bring you to Concourse D of Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, you may find yourself trundling your baggage toward a shabby room at the end of a hallway, where the seats are arranged in a circle around the walls, as if in the lobby of a doctor’s office. And then the whole thing will start moving. This is a “mobile lounge,” and when it was designed in the 1960s, it was going to radically restructure the idea of airports.

How Many 9-Letter Words Can You Make With Airport Codes?

by Cara Giaimo

Most of the world’s functioning airports have a three-letter identification code, assigned to them by the International Air Transit Association. Aviation professionals use the codes as official shorthand, but as artist Parker Higgins realized, you can also use them to play a fun game: inventing three-city itineraries that spell out nine-letter words.

A pedestrian’s view of a Kai Tak landing.
A pedestrian’s view of a Kai Tak landing. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Remembering Hair-Raising Landings at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport

by Anika Burgess

It’s been more than 20 years since Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport closed, but its unique, notorious landing approach is still very much alive in the memory of those who experienced it, especially runway 13/31, a descent that earned the nickname “Kai Tak Heart Attack.”

Meet the Farm Animals That Help One of America’s Busiest Airports Run

by Claire Voon

A verdant field runs along the northern edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, overlooking one of its seven runways. This is the workplace of some of the facility’s most unusual employees, who spend their shifts eating as much as they want. They also don’t have to worry about commuting, because they sleep there. These seasonal workers are farm animals—goats, sheep, and one donkey—who help maintain the landscape of one of America’s busiest airports by chomping on overgrown vegetation.