Despite recent events surrounding the coronavirus, commercial air travel remains an essential form of transportation for the general public and business traveler. Commercial air travel imposes stress on the human body. These stresses are not only psychological (e.g. fear of flying, lengthy airport delays etc.), but they are physical as well. Once aboard an aircraft, passengers experience physical stresses related to the environment. What follows are some of the more common physical stressors and what to do about them.
- Decreased barometric pressure as it relates to less oxygen saturation in the blood. A jet airplane typically cruises at an altitude of 30-35,000 feet and is pressurized to between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, which is somewhat higher than someone living in the mile high city of Denver, Colorado. What this does is produce an arterial oxygen saturation level of 90 percent with normal being anything above 95 percent. For healthy people this pressure difference should not be a problem. For travelers with cardio-respiratory complications, a check with the physician before air travel is advised. Although airlines do not allow passengers to bring their own oxygen aboard the aircraft, accommodations can be made with the airlines for supplemental oxygen between flight segments.
- Low humidity – the average humidity in an aircraft is 17 percent, with 40-70 percent considered an optimal comfort range. This dry environment can cause dehydration. For that reason, passengers are encouraged to stay hydrated with water, fruit juices, and/or non-carbonated beverages. Alcoholic beverages should be avoided since they only hasten fluid loss by the body.
- Air quality – the debate over the healthy nature of airplane air is ongoing and beyond the scope of this article. That being said, older aircraft such as the Boeing 727 and DC-9 are designed to circulate 100 percent fresh air, whereas newer aircraft (such as the Boeing 757 and MD-8), get by on a mixture of 50 percent fresh and 50 percent recirculated.
- Immobility – the prolonged effects of cramped seating and immobility raises the risk of blood clots, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The clotting typically occurs in the legs and could become fatal if it were to become a pulmonary embolism. While the association of DVT with air travel is not conclusive, air travelers are encouraged to drink adequate non-alcoholic fluids, avoid smoking, and walk and stretch frequently. The walking and stretching component is not easy however in the cramped aircraft environment, commonly known as the “economy class syndrome”.
In conclusion, flying is a convenient, relatively inexpensive form of travel that is appealing despite its many stresses. This article is presented with the intention of minimizing some of the deleterious effects of air travel.