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.”