Here at Crew Costhetics (CC) it wasn’t unknown for us to travel overseas before COVID-19 hit, all in the interest of research and knowledge gathering for our most favourite people of course—you.
As you know, those long-haul flights can cause havoc with our bodies in all sorts of ways, yet somehow, those wonderful cabin attendants all seem to look fresh and fantastic when they are serving breakfast just before arrival. How can they do that all the time? And how come I always feel well, not at my best, after a long flight? And what about those stories I read about horrible cabin air?
So I decided to sit down with one of my resources. That resource has spent nearly 40 years flying those long-haul aeroplanes as a pilot. He’s now retired, but quite happy to share his knowledge in user-friendly terms.
Oh, and he happens to be my dad.
CC: Thanks for this. I remember when I first starting flying overseas and you would say to me, ‘Stay away from the booze on the flight, it won’t do you any good’, and I used to laugh at that and think, yeah, sure Dad. Well, I guess I have grown since those days, and wised up as well. I’m sort of confused about the air in the cabin—you read so many horror stories. Why do those long flights knock us around so much? How does it all work?
D: Good questions, but to answer, I’m going to need to explain a little of how the air systems work—nothing too technical—but if you understand it, then you know what’s happening to you, and why.
Modern jet aeroplanes need to fly at high altitudes, between say 30 and 40 thousand feet, because that’s where jet engines need to be for fuel efficiency, aircraft speed and so on. That’s way higher than Mt Everest of course, so if the cabin wasn’t pressurised, well, everyone would pass out from lack of oxygen.
So, the cabin is pressurised by pumping air into it—this increases the air pressure in the cabin, making it the equivalent of being at around 7,000 feet altitude—about like being at the top of Mt Kosciusko.
CC: Okay, so if they can do that, why don’t they pump some more air in and make it the same as down at ground level?
D: The reason is that the difference in pressure between inside the aeroplane and outside is quite a lot—a bit more than 8 pounds per square inch—that’s a lot of stress on the aircraft structure. Of course, they are built to handle that, and there is a big safety margin. However, they can’t put enough pressure in to get the cabin altitude down to ground level. Interestingly, newer aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, because of their construction materials, can use higher pressures and the cabin altitudes in those are a bit lower.
CC: Yep, gotcha, it’s kind of pumped up like a balloon then?
D: Exactly, and as with the balloon, you can’t just keep pumping air into it. Those jet engines out there, the front part, before the fuel is added, are just big air-compressors. Air is bled off that part, it goes through various air-conditioning gizmos and into the cabin. Some of it is allowed out the back of the aeroplane through outflow valves that adjust to control the pressure, and therefore the effective altitude of the cabin.
CC: It’s nice clean air coming in then?
D: It sure is, and it is extremely dry. Up at those altitudes there is really no moisture in the air. Down at sea level, where we live, the humidity of the air—the percentage of moisture in it—varies a lot but is roughly between around 60 and 80 percent. In extremely humid summers up north, places like Byron Bay, it can be up in the 90s. In those conditions, you really feel it and so you replenish by drinking lots of water.
Because the air coming into the aeroplane is effectively dry, the humidity in the cabin is very low—well under 20%—particularly on those long flights. This is a real issue for people. You don’t perspire, you may notice dry eyes, dry skin, that sort of thing—but you can really dehydrate. I can’t say this strongly enough: alcohol, tea and coffee only compound the problem, as they are diuretics. The thing to do is to continually replenish by drinking water. I say replenish, because as you breathe you are breathing out carbon dioxide and water vapour. So moisture is leaving your body continually, and it needs to be replaced. I’m told by nurses that adding a little lemon or lime aids in absorption.
CC: So Dad, you were right all those years ago about the booze, huh? Hah hah.
CC: What can you tell me about the quality of the air in the cabin—there are lots of horror stories out there?
D: There sure are, and they are pretty much off the mark. Okay, the clean dry air comes in via the air-con units, circulates around the cabin, and some of it is discharged out the back. I say some of it, because some of it is recirculated back into the cabin. The reason for that is that bleeding air off the engines reduces their efficiency a bit, so if you don’t have to bleed as much off, you save fuel. It doesn’t sound much, but if you look at the thousands of aircraft airborne at any one time and crunch up even some small percentages, it becomes significant.
Of course, stories abound about how this dirty air is pumped back into the cabin. The fact is that the air that is recirculated comes back in through hospital grade filters that remove more than 99% of impurities. They vary from aircraft to aircraft, but they are extremely good, and the air that is returned to the cabin is at least as good as any in a hospital theatre.
Needless to say, sitting right next to someone who has a cold is not ideal, but that applies anywhere—train, bus, theatre. For the most part, passengers who pick up upper-respiratory infections and the like, do so from touching tray tables, arm rests, door handles, toilet seats—all the usual suspects. Regular use of good hand sanitiser is very important. One thing I do know for sure, aeroplane air is some of the best you can breathe – albeit, extremely dry.
CC: Thanks Dad, so could you just summarise some main points of advice for our us—for when we can all get back to doing some travelling?
D: Sure thing, and these things are even more important on those longer flights, but they hold true for all flights really.
- Get plenty of rest beforehand, and be organised with inflight needs such as sanitiser, moisturiser and meds.
- Stay away from tea, coffee, and alcohol.
- Regularly use hand sanitiser.
- Regularly use quality moisturiser, lip balm, eye lubricating drops.
- Regularly do all those little toe-wiggle type exercises to keep the circulation going and do a bit of stretching and bending when you stand up to visit the restroom.
- Continually sip on some water and do your best to keep hydrated.
- Get some rest—sleep if you can—and if you can’t, practice up on your meditation routine. I can’t tell you how important that was for me.
- If you have been seat-bound for hours—start by sitting up, loosening up, and stand up holding onto a seat-back or something. Get the blood flowing before you venture off walking along a dark cabin aisle with possible trip hazards.
CC: Dad, you mention meds, I know you aren’t a doctor, but what do you think on that one?
D: Well, for sure, follow the advice of your medical professional of course, but I’d say, take your meds at the normal dosage, and at the normal intervals. I’ve had passengers say, after an inflight event—I thought I should take twice as many because of the altitude. As you would expect that sort of logic is dangerous and can lead to unexpected results.
CC: What about jetlag? Any tricks?
D: Over the years people have asked me how I dealt with it. There is no real magic pill for it. It is important to be aware that even if you think you are okay, you are operating at reduced capacity, mentally. Just basic things like crossing the road, getting onto a train, stepping out of the shower—you need to be super cautious until you get your land-legs back, and your mind is sharp.
If you can, push through that day of arrival and get a good sleep on that first night, even if you do snap wide awake at 3am. Get reasonable exercise, eat nutritious food, plenty of fluids—you know what that’s about, right? Basically, don’t fight it, and know that in a day or two you will be back to normal.