August 4, 2000
10:29 AM   Subscribe

I was astounded, but maybe I'm just naive. According to a Beyond 2000 article, low oxygen content in aircraft cabins, which contributes to the majority of air travel woes, is mostly due to penny-pinching. Great, skimping on air! What's next? ... umm ... ahhh ... Oh gee, I have nothing worse to compare it to!
posted by quirked (23 comments total)
You could compare it to automobile design in the 50s and 60s, prioritizing style over safety, before they were explosed by Ralph Nader for the soulless manipulative crooks they still are. But this is actually much much worse than depriving people of oxygen, which sounds worse than it is. I am surprised they don't try to sell you extra oxygen on the plane for $8.00.

It was at Harvard where Nader first explored another unorthodox legal topic: the engineering design of automobiles. His research resulted in an April 1959 article published in The Nation, "The Safe Car You Can't Buy," in which he declared, "It is clear Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not -- despite the 5,000,000 reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities, 110,000 permanent disabilities and 1,500,000 injuries yearly -- for safety."

from The Nader Page.
posted by donkeymon at 11:11 AM on August 4, 2000

So how much are the operators saving by reducing oxygen levels in passenger cabins? On a Boeing 747, it works out at about $80 an hour, or roughly 20 cents per passenger. On a long flight, such as the 22-hour marathon from London to Sydney, that would mean altering ticket prices by $4.40.
posted by lbergstr at 11:21 AM on August 4, 2000

That is why I thought that they would charge $8.00. Now that I think about it, they would probably need extra fire insurance to carry all that oxygen regularly and in the open, so they would most likely charge $50.00 - $100.00 until a law was passed saying that they could refuse passengers solely on the basis of their oxygen status and were required to provide for their needs. Rather than do all that, they would just up the oxygen to acceptable levels.
posted by donkeymon at 11:33 AM on August 4, 2000

I'm not eager to jump on to the airlines' side, but could it have anything to do with a lower oxygen content being less flamable? Not only would a higher oxygen content in the air raise the flamability of everything in the cabin, but carrying the additional quantities of compressed oxygen would incur various safety risks.

I dunno. Just a thought.
posted by silusGROK at 11:36 AM on August 4, 2000

That is an interesting thought, but based on what it said in the article, I *think* that they are still carrying enough oxgen, they are just not pumping it. To quote the article:
Pilots are routinely instructed to disengage some of the equipment responsible for bringing fresh air into the aircraft, meaning that a high-proportion of the air inside the plane is being re-breathed. Shutting off the equipment means the engines don't have to work as hard, thus saving fuel costs.

Unless of course the air just comes from outside of the plane and not from a tank at all.
posted by donkeymon at 11:59 AM on August 4, 2000

From the way the news story was worded, I think the air comes from outside the plane. But opening the intake vents apparently reduces aerodynamics, burning more fuel.
posted by wiremommy at 12:09 PM on August 4, 2000

What air outside the plane? Air is incredible thin up there. That is why the oxygen masks drop down if the cabin is compromised, you black out pretty quick. really quick even.
I hear air quality was better when smokers were allowed on planes, they had to have a greater refresh rate to clear the smoke. Blame yourselves anti-smoking thugs!
posted by thirteen at 12:17 PM on August 4, 2000

And as always, I do not smoke. Save your venom.
posted by thirteen at 12:18 PM on August 4, 2000

I can already imagine the response to my 12:17 post. I was joking. I know you will say there should not be smoking and plenty of air. I get it. I am not against air.
I do know people seem to be plenty excited by cheap airfare, this is not a bad place to cut costs. I cannot imagine the air is so thin that it is worse than spending x hours in Colorado. If it will save some on my end I am willing. I do not think anybody is dying up there. There is now an oportunity for a full service plenty of air airline to step in and serve those who are concerned.
posted by thirteen at 12:23 PM on August 4, 2000

I love CrayDrygu like a son.
posted by thirteen at 12:31 PM on August 4, 2000

Yeah, can I trade all the rest of my air for a lot more peanuts?
posted by donkeymon at 12:50 PM on August 4, 2000

I'll buy your air, and then take all the peanuts when you pass out.
posted by thirteen at 12:58 PM on August 4, 2000

The article states that "the oxygen content is only the equivalent of the air breathed at an altitude of 2400 meters." That's 7873 feet.
When skydiving, we ride in an unpressurized cabin all the way to exit altitude, typically 13,000 - 15,000 feet. Climbing higher than this is rare because it requires the use of supplemental oxygen. If the elapsed time above 8,000 feet MSL is expected to exceed 30 minutes, supplemental oxygen must be employed to prevent hypoxia.
I've never been aware of feeling hypoxic in a commercial aircraft on long flights, but I have found myself getting tired, dehydrated, and irritable. Wait... hmm....
posted by Tubes at 2:15 PM on August 4, 2000

The cabin pressure (this is *not* about oxygen percentage in the gas, it's about total volume per person of O2 in the cabin) is increased from that at the altitude in question by high pressure turbo pumps driven by the engines.

What these pumps do is *proportionally* reduce the apparent altitude in the cabin, with excess pressure (if any) being vented by one-way check valves. There is a maximum pressure differential that it is safe to run in the cabin -- if you tried to pressurize a jet flying at FL450 to sea level, you'd probably pop the windows out.

In other words, this article, if not factually incorrect, was certainly written by someone who is more interested in furthering their own agenda, whatever that might be, than in responsible journalism.

I'm so displeased with it, in fact, that I've just forwarded the URL to Boeing. See that '757' on the tail of the plane in the eye-wash photo? That's a factory demonstrator, and almost certainly a copyrighted Boeing picture. Bet you they sue...
posted by baylink at 2:48 PM on August 4, 2000

I was making my points via my faulty memory. I seemed to recall a private plane depressurized and caused all the passengers and pilots to black out. The plane continued on it's way until it crashed a whole bunch of states away when the fuel ran out.
posted by thirteen at 3:02 PM on August 4, 2000

Once I rode on a plane and when I asked for those yummy honey roasted peanuts, the flight attendant girl told me that it was against the law to carry those kinds of peanuts on planes. She said the reason for that law was because SO many people are allergic to peanuts that it is unsafe to have them aboard. I bet she was lying.

I have never been denied oxygen, though.
posted by eyesandfists at 3:04 PM on August 4, 2000

No actually, some airlines have recently ceased supplying peanuts because of people who are allergic to them. If you recall a certain episode of Freaks and Geeks you will know that the reasction can be very severe, even to a very small exposure. Its not actually illegal yet though, IIRC.

I don't see the plane you are talking about there though. I only see a 767. I don't know enough to guess whether that was a typo though.

Both cabin pressure and oxygen density can affect how much air any particular person breathes. I don't see why they could not just increase the oxygen density to compensate for the low cabin pressure talked about in the article.
posted by JackBootedThug at 3:22 PM on August 4, 2000

Apologies, thug; you're right. It's a seven-six, not a seven-five; I'm just blind.

As for increasing the oxygen percentage to compensate for lower cabin pressure, there are three problems:

1) oxygen intox
2) the bends (the cabin pressure will *still* be lower)
3) flammability -- in the cabin as well as in the bottles.

None of these are things you want to get involved with in something as 'consumer' as commercial air travel.

As for the peanut thing, The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says that the federal ruling (which *did* exist) has been rescinded, and that even they aren't sure that it was necessary in the first place.

[Love that domain name, eh? Bet they didn't have any trouble getting it.]
posted by baylink at 5:45 PM on August 4, 2000

They stole that domain name from The Fonz!

baylink's right, though. That article is liberal pandering without a whole lot of basis in reality. Even the basic premise is a bit wacked out; the last time I checked, people are not falling over dead on commercial airliners from asphyxiation. Would MORE oxygen be nice? Well, sure. More oxygen would be nice on the ground too. But somehow, we survive.
posted by aaron at 10:43 PM on August 4, 2000

My plane travel experience isn't that great; in the last year, though, I've gone from Melbourne to Los Angeles (14/15 hour flight) and back again with a couple of interstate flights in between, and I wasn't ever worried or paranoid about plane travel, and between this thread and thinking obsessively about that Concorde thing and the explosion scene in the movie "Final Destination", I'm going to have to be dragged onto the plane when I head back to the States.

Damn you people to hell!

(Just kidding, don't shoot. ;-) )
posted by sammy at 8:14 AM on August 5, 2000

Oh, yes, it's all "liberal pandering" to suggest that just maybe, penny-pinching airlines, who already shovel full-size adults into seats the size of suitcases, JUST MAY be themselves responsible for the so-called air rage epidemic. (You didn't even notice that the doctor who's quoted was involved in determining whether individuals are "fit to fly" -- hardly a liberal approach.) There isn't even one mention of what I would suggest as the next step: establishing higher minimum air-quality levels on aircraft.

I think your knees are jerking and automatically labeling it as liberal when you haven't actually read the article.
posted by dhartung at 3:12 PM on August 6, 2000

I do know that on transatlantic flights, the air conditioning is usually better in first and business than in economy, especially on 747s with their upstairs first class sections...

Tangentially: did anyone hear about the planes in Australia -- actually built in Britain -- that were grounded because fumes were leaking from the engine compartment into the cabin? Now that's more serious than the oxygen quota.
posted by holgate at 5:08 PM on August 6, 2000

No knees jerking, here, Dan. My best friend's a pilot, and I'm well acquainted technically with the subject. The article was, pure and simply, trash. It was written by someone who was *told* something, and didn't do the first piece of his own research on how things are actually *done* in the discipline -- a problem I see in a *maddening* amount of *computer* journalism these days, too.

(CRN, particularly, has been notable in the past for expanding acronyms wrong: ATM - Automatic Teller Machine; in an article on ATM and Frame Relay.)
posted by baylink at 9:00 AM on August 7, 2000

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