Occasionally I see panicked or appalled posts on social media where a passenger snaps a picture of something on their flight that appears to be held together with duct tape, usually accompanied by comments like, “How can this be safe!?” or “This plane is literally held together by duct tape – how reassuring.”
Years of personal experience have taught me that being an insufferable know-it-all isn’t the easiest way to win friends, so I typically won’t comment unless the passenger seems actually worried, in which case I just try to allay their fears.
The first thing to know (as I’m sure many of you avgeeks out there are fully aware) is that it’s not duct tape.
Speed tape, sometimes called aircraft tape or aluminum foil tape, is a special product that can withstand the high temperatures, moisture, wind, and other challenging conditions to which an aircraft fuselage is exposed during flight.
Although it bears a physical resemblance to the stuff you might use to patch holes in the upholstery of your ’89 Chevy Caprice, it’s actually much more resilient.
Aircraft tape is a fast, and temporary, fix for non-critical components
Mechanics and other aircraft experts widely regard speed tape as extremely safe when used properly. However, airlines must adhere to certain guidelines when using speed tape, lest they find themselves in a sticky situation with regulators. (Yes, that was two tape puns in one sentence. You’re welcome.)
Aluminum foil tape can be applied relatively quickly, and is only used for superficial issues. While durable, the idea is not to use speed tape as a permanent fix, rather it’s a temporary solution to keep the aircraft in service and the schedule on time until more extensive repairs can be completed. And rest assured, aircraft tape is applied by mechanics and maintenance teams — it’s not just a random member of the baggage crew slapping on some duct tape and calling it a day.
I do agree that an aircraft that appears to be composed of more tape than actual aluminum probably doesn’t put forth the best image. But I think most passengers would concede that a safe and temporary fix is acceptable when the alternative is a delayed or canceled flight.