Airlines Skimping on Passenger Air to Save Fuel

By David J. Stewart

       Few airline passengers realize that the air they're breathing may not be as fresh as they think.  In fact, according to some experts in the industry, the quality of air is oftentimes very poor...

Skimping on air, saving on fuel

By Roger Collis  |  September 3rd, 2004


On a British Airways flight from Hong Kong to London, the air was so dry and hot that despite drinking lots of water and avoiding alcohol, I had a splitting headache by the time we landed in the morning. A stewardess said that she could do nothing about changing the air temperature just to satisfy one passenger. Could it be that BA was saving money by filtering the cabin air rather than heating cold air from outside? Are there any surveys on in-flight air quality?

Peter Heath, Manila


Airlines ask pilots to save fuel by turning off one or more air-conditioning units, especially during night flights, thus lowering the amount of fresh air circulating in the cabin. The airlines indignantly deny doing any such thing. The first time I experienced this was on a flight from Bangkok to London with Thai Airways, earlier this year. Cabin air is normally cool, almost cold, on long-haul flights. But I snapped awake in the middle of the night, hot and sweating. I found it hard to breathe; there was no fresh air in the cabin. I called a cabin attendant and asked her to tell the captain to switch back on one or more of the air conditioning units that he had undoubtedly switched off. The cabin attendant did not demur, knowing quite well what I was saying, and 10 minutes later came back to reassure me that the captain had switched the units back on. Modern aircraft supply a mix of fresh and re-circulated air with the change rate as low as once every 10 minutes. Airlines can save up to 2 percent of fuel costs, representing millions of dollars for a large carrier, by cutting in half the quantity of air they bring into the cabin thereby re-circulating 50 percent of cabin air. Turning off an air-conditioning pack not only saves fuel, but also reduces noise in the cabin. None of the airlines provide data on how much air is re-circulated. There are no international rules on standards of air quality except for levels of carbon monoxide, ozone and carbon dioxide. I know of no surveys on in-flight air quality.

SOURCE: Ask ROGER COLLIS : Skimping on air, saving on fuel - International Herald Tribune

According to Diana Fairechild, who flew over 10 million miles as an international chief purser for Pan Am, in an article titled PILOTS SKIMP ON AIR TO SAVE FUEL, she states...

"In-flight air is drier than any of the world's deserts. Relative humidity is 20-25% in the Sahara or Arabian deserts, while optimum comfort is around 50% humidity.

In-flight cabin humidities gradually fall on long-distance, high-altitude flights in many cases approaching 1%.

Basically, there's no way to avoid the fact that your body will become dehydrated to some degree as a result of flying long distances in near-zero humidity in commercial jet cabins. So we need to be mindful of our water intake en route, and also remember to drink plenty of pure water for several days after landing.

Without adequate water intake, both health and inspiration quickly deteriorate.

In-flight dehydration is one of the most serious hazards long-distance flyers face."

SOURCE: Fairechild is an airline passenger advocate

Certainly, every passenger has a right to complain if the air is too dry or of poor quality.  Here is another quote from the August 1995 issue of Smart Money magazine...

"The pilot is able to control the amount of fresh air that flows through the cabin and often recirculates as much as half the air to save fuel. So if you're feeling a little stuffy, take the advice of Diana Fairechild, a retired flight attendant and author of Jet Smart, 'Kindly ask a stewardess to ask the pilot for "full utilization of air.'" Then they'll know you know the airline terms and the pilot can flip a switch."

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