JOURNAL ARTICLE
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Altitude exposures during commercial flight: a reappraisal.

BACKGROUND: Hypobaric hypoxia during commercial air travel has the potential to cause or worsen hypoxemia in individuals with pre-existing cardiopulmonary compromise. Knowledge of cabin altitude pressures aboard contemporary flights is essential to counseling patients accurately about flying safety. The objective of the study was to measure peak cabin altitudes during U.S. domestic commercial flights on a variety of aircraft.

METHODS: A handheld mountaineering altimeter was carried by the investigators in the plane cabin during commercial air travel and peak cabin altitude measured. The values were then compared between aircraft models, aircraft classes, and distances flown.

RESULTS: The average peak cabin altitude on 207 flights aboard 17 different aircraft was 6341 +/- 1813 ft (1933 m +/- 553 m), significantly higher than when measured in a similar fashion in 1988. Peak cabin altitude was significantly higher for flights longer than 750 mi (7085 +/- 801 ft) compared to shorter flights (5160 +/- 2290 ft/1573 +/- 698 m). Cabin altitude increased linearly with flight distance for flights up to 750 mi in length, but was independent of flight distance for flights exceeding 750 mi. Peak cabin altitude was less than 5000 ft (1524 m) in 70% of flights shorter than 500 mi. Peak cabin altitudes greater than 8000 ft (2438 m) were measured on approximately 10% of the total flights.

CONCLUSIONS: Peak cabin altitude on commercial aircraft flights has risen over time. Cabin altitude is lower with flights of shorter distance. Physicians should take these factors into account when determining an individual's need for supplemental oxygen during commercial air travel.

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