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Flying on Thin Air

By  May 22, 2008

Topics: Programming, C/C++

A couple of friends who've just returned from a vacation in Rome ask my why I don't travel often. The usual suspects such as financial stress, pressure at work and the weather at the destination make fine excuses but deep down I know that these are not the real causes for avoiding 2-3 trips per year. So what is that keeps me confined to my home?

The truth is that traveling isn’t as fun as we pretend it is. It's not that I don't enjoy those heavenly moments of strolling down Piccadilly arcade or the quaint shops in Paris. What I dislike is the flight. No, I don't have a flight phobia. My problems with flights are quite different and in fact, affect all passengers:

  • The unbearable constant background noise (and now they're adding to this delight mobile phone services!).
  • The aircraft cabin air is hardly breathable.

Truth be told: both problems have workable technological solutions but carriers prefer to ignore them -- probably because passengers don't complain much about these issues.

With respect to the background noise, better insulation and quieter engines can reduce background noise to a more acceptable level, which will enable passengers to hear music from their portable music players without having to pump up the volume to deafening levels.

The air in the passenger's cabin is a more serious problem. Most passengers don't realize that carriers skimp a few pennies by loading a smaller amount of oxygen on board. Thus, instead of the 21% of oxygen in air breathed at sea level, the air mixture in an aircraft cabin contains about 15% of oxygen. If that's not enough, the air mixture has to be heated because the outside temperature is -76F (-60C) some 37,000 ft above ground (11.2 km). To save a few more bucks, the air mixture is heated by the plane's engines. This is bad! Toxic fumes from the engine sneak into the heated air mixture. Consequently, not only is the aircraft cabin air extremely dry and low in oxygen, it also contains toxic gases. No wonder why flights are so exhausting.

I don't have a magical solution to this air problem. Carrying more oxygen on board means burning more expensive fuel, hence even more expensive tickets and a higher carbon footprint. However, this expense can be offset by offering a bonus for passengers with light baggage, and perhaps by better design of the airplane's seats. Whatever the solution is, one thing is sure: if passengers start demanding better air during flights, they will get it. After all, non-essential services such as mobile phones on board, duty free shopping and a wide selection of wines are available because passengers demand them.

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