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How did clapping on planes become such a divisive issue?

Some people clap when the plane lands. Others think the celebration is the worst.

(Laurène Boglio for The Washington Post)

There’s a popular insult these days that goes by the following formula: “People who [do a disagreeable thing] are the same people who clap when the plane lands.” Sometimes it’s a variation of “Imagine you meet the love of your life and then find out they clap on planes.”

And sometimes it’s just a message of dismissal: “Goodmorning to everyone except the people who clap when the airplane lands.”

Why did clapping on planes — an activity viewed either as an expression of relief, gratitude or plain old joy — become a reason for public shaming? And how did the landing clap, as some call it, evolve in the first place?

Let’s take the second question first: No one seems to know. The subject has been thoroughly debated on message boards and sites including Quora, Reddit and Everyone has an opinion. There is no clear origin story, though there are a few common scenarios for clapping: at the end of a particularly harrowing flight or long delay; in celebration of a return to one’s homeland; or in continuation of a tradition that started who-knows-when-or-why.

“There’s two different constituencies: the fearful fliers and the happy nationalists,” says Daniel Levine, a travel trends expert. “And those two converge in an airplane.”

Slate explored the topic two years ago and came to the questionable conclusion that plane clapping does not happen — and when it does, the smatterings of applause are merely “freak events.” Digging into the furthest reaches of flight history, the story quotes David McCullough’s biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright and finds that the earliest exhibitions of flying were greeted with zero fanfare.

“There were no spectators and no applause save the booming of the surf and the startled cries of the sea birds,” the book says, according to Slate’s report.

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In its own dive into the phenomenon in 2017, Mic discovered, through the work of the Museum of Flight, that the first recorded case of landing and clapping came in a Cincinnati Enquirer article in 1948. The article described an American Airlines flight with a malfunction that involved the landing gear. The flight ultimately landed safely, and “all of the passengers clapped their hands in thankful relief,” according to the article.

Clark McPhail, who taught sociology at the University of Illinois and studied collective actions, said he frequently encountered that type of clapping in turbulence-plagued travels to both coasts.

“My impression was that when we were on a bouncy flight, when the pilot finally landed the plane, people were relieved,” said McPhail, who now lives in Virginia. “And they were applauding the pilot’s skill in getting them from point A to point B and getting there safely and putting an end to the suspense of, ‘Is the next turbulence we hit going to be the one that brings us all to an unanticipated ending?’ ”

Some travelers responding to a query about clapping from the Points Guy, a travel website, said they had witnessed it at airports that make for notoriously difficult (or difficult-seeming) landings. That gets us back to the scorn-heaped-upon clappers, who may be seen as untraveled rubes.

“My guess is those people are veteran fliers and they’re saying, ‘You’re wimps,’ ” McPhail said. “This is part of traveling by airplane."

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Levine wrote about the “seemingly spontaneous ovation that often accompanies an aircraft’s safe return to terra firma” in 1997 for the International Herald Tribune and did not praise the practice.

“To me the display suggests a lack of sophistication that only serves to identify the infrequent fliers on board,” he wrote.

Levine, who flies about every two weeks for work as a keynote speaker, said he spots plane clappers regularly, usually on international flights — and still admits to a bit of snobbishness about it: “I’ve never been caught dead clapping.”

Others, including frequent travelers, take the opposite approach. Earlier this month, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted a video of himself giving a round of applause as soon as a plane landed with the message: “How you find out if you’re the only Latino on the flight.”

Responses suggested Miranda might have had company from travelers who were German, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, Jamaican, Polish, Israeli, etc., especially if they were landing at their home airports. Although few claimed to be clappers themselves, many said they were familiar with the practice from their own travel history.

Airlines also acknowledge the phenomenon. Last year, JetBlue released a video celebrating the tradition of the landing clap in Puerto Rico. And a spokeswoman for Israeli carrier El Al told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2013 that clapping upon touchdown was “part of the spirit of the airline.”

“People get very excited as they’re about to land, and one way of showing that enthusiasm is to applaud,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s owned by anybody,” Levine said. “I think it is a universal expression that can be shared cross-culturally. In that way, it’s kind of nice. It’s one of those things that you don’t need language to understand.”

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