Adjusting Cabin Pressure Eases Air Passenger Discomfort

Next week, Boeing plans to launch its newest aircraft, the 787, with cabins pressurized to 6,000 feet.

"The 787 is one of our first airplanes with the fuselage made out of composites rather than aluminum, a structure that allows us to pressurize to 6,000 feet," said Jeanne Yu, director of environmental performance for Boeing. "The findings of this study, as well as the development of materials technology, enable us to fly the 787."

But she added, changing cabin pressures in existing aircraft is not that simple because of their aluminum structures.

"Airplanes are designed to withstand the continuous pressurization/depressurization cycles that occur in takeoffs and landings throughout their service life. To lower the maximum cruise cabin altitude, the pressure difference must be increased between the interior and exterior of the airplane. This change would fatigue (wear out) the structure more rapidly and impact the airplane's service life in an uncertain way, perhaps even compromising the design integrity of the airplane," she said.

More information

For more on staying healthy when you fly, head to the Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCES: J. Michael Muhm, M.D., senior occupational physician, Boeing, Seattle; Jeanne Yu, director, environmental performance, Boeing, Seattle; Claude Thibeault, M.D., medical advisor, International Air Transport Association, Montreal; July 5, 2007, New England Journal of Medicine

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