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Why do we say stepped into a car with cars but can't say the same with planes? Instead we say stepped onto a plane.

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Why no comma before but? – user17857 Jan 25 '12 at 20:10
That edit does not belong to me. It belongs to @Will Hunting. I just edited the tag. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jan 25 '12 at 20:11
Are cars the exception? We get into a car but onto a plane, ship, train, bus, elevator... what else do we get into? – Monica Cellio Jan 25 '12 at 20:14
What about submarines? They're certainly claustrophobic enough to use into, and Google Ngrams shows that people generally do. – Peter Shor Jan 25 '12 at 20:22

It comes down to the notion of power and self-sufficiency. If the vehicle into/onto which you're engaging is a vehicle that in the normal course of life you have a relatively decent chance of being able to be in control of, you are stepping into it—otherwise, you are stepping onto it.

If the pilot/navigator of the ship/machine is someone who requires a non-trivial amount of training in order to command it, you are likely stepping onto it. I step onto this plane. I step onto this cruise. I step onto this space shuttle.

If you are relatively able to take control of the vehicle yourself in the normal course of things, you are more likely to step into it. I get into my car. I get into my guise. I get into the situation.

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Possibly because aviation language has a certain amount in common with maritime language, and we get onto a boat.

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I get into dinghies and kayaks and the like. I do get onto personal watercraft, but that's more analogous to mounting a bicycle or a horse than boarding a vessel. – choster Jan 26 '12 at 2:25
Indeed @choster, definitely use caution when choosing between into or onto to describe the horse. – John K Jan 26 '12 at 6:08
@JohnK Now now, let's get back onto the subject and not into that. – choster Jan 26 '12 at 15:59

Scale often matters. One steps into a canoe or rowboat but onto a yacht or an ocean liner, into a car or van but onto a bus or train. Most of the aircraft most people board are large commercial airliners, not small private planes.

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Mentioned this elsewhere, but it seems the controlling idea is whether the user normally sits or stands. If the user is "in" the boat, it is a small boat and the user is typically sitting. If "on" the boat, users are comfortable standing. The same applies to planes, buses,trains, automobiles, and elevators. For things that are straddled - fences, horses, bicycles, farm tractors - "on" is used.

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I think your premise is faulty. I think either "into" or "onto" works just fine. Google Ngrams shows these results for the following phrases:

stepped into the plane vs. stepped onto the plane
Ngram chart for the above phrase
into the plane vs. onto the plane
Ngram chart for the above phrase
into the airplane vs. onto the airplane
Ngramchart for the above phrase

(No hits at all for "stepped into the airplane vs. stepped onto the airplane".)

That being said, I personally would use "onto the plane". I feel this is due to the relative size of the vehicle. If I were entering a small plane (like a two-seater) or a helicopter, I would use "into". In general, I think it's because of the feeling of being enclosed in the vehicle. So small vehicles, like cars and kayaks, get "into". Large vehicles, like commercial aircraft and cruise ships, get "onto". (I just noticed that @choster wrote the same thing in his own answer.)

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Based on this answer on ELL.SE, I think these are the rules:

  1. If the vehicle is boardable — you can be on board it — you're on it. Here, "on" is short for "on board".
    This covers planes, trains, buses, boats, spaceships, and so on.

  2. If the vehicle is too small to actually have an inside to get into, you're on it.
    This covers bikes, skateboards, pogosticks, and so on.

  3. In the remaining cases, you're in it.
    This covers cars, canoes, and so on.

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I think it's because, conceptually, the purpose of a plane or boat is to hold you up, where you would otherwise fall. Whereas a car or submarine is foremost simply containing you.

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And the purpose of a bus is? – user17857 Feb 5 '12 at 9:29
Similar to a trolley, it's basically a platform that carries you around and you ride it in a sense like you ride a horse. – Eben Geer Feb 6 '12 at 19:03
It's not just size. You step into a room or a stadium, but onto a stage. – Eben Geer Feb 6 '12 at 19:04
The use of into or onto on some level has to do with elevation. – Eben Geer Feb 6 '12 at 19:05
surely you can be both on and in a submarine? – Leon Conrad May 20 '14 at 10:47

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