Plane cabin temperature: Why flight cabin temperature is always too hot or too cold, and how to cope

When Eric Crusius boarded his recent American Airlines flight from Washington to Dallas, the air conditioning was powered down and the cabin started to heat up quickly, just as you might expect an aluminum tube to do under the heat of the late summer sun.

"It was pretty steamy," he recalls.

Bring a blanket, dress in layers and hope for the best.

But that was nothing compared with what happened when he landed. After the plane touched down, its air conditioning switched off again, and this time, the temperature outside was in the high 30s. Passengers waiting to exit the aircraft began to glisten with sweat.

Eventually, relief from the overheated plane came when they reached Dallas-Fort Worth's cooler terminal, says Crusius, an attorney based in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Travel can be many things, but too often it is either too hot or too cold. And not just on an aircraft. Buses, trains and other types of mass transit often get the interior temperature wrong, either overcooling or overheating the cabin. Making matters worse, these modes of transportation generally don't have comfort standards set by the government or operators.

Cabin comfort, and the challenges of regulating it, became an issue in Dallas this northern summer when an American Airlines flight attendant reportedly fainted in an overheated plane. American's maximum "safe" temperature is 90 degrees fahrenheit (32.2 Celsius), and the flight attendants' union wants to lower that number for the sake of its members and passengers.

Generally, the older the aircraft, the more likely you'll freeze - or bake - according to Paul Eschenfelder, a retired captain for Delta Air Lines. For example, on an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777 or 787, you can regulate the temperature almost to the seat. On older aircraft, the system is imprecise.

"If seat 37G was hot, then 12B wound up being frozen out when the temperature was reduced," he remembers.

Modern aircraft control temperature by zone and can even be adjusted by row. Assuming, of course, that the climate controls are available. When a plane is parked at the gate, it is cooled differently in order to save fuel.


"Cold air is plumbed in from outside through ducting connected to a huge air conditioning unit mounted below the jetway," explains Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential. "Usually this is adequate. If not, we will start the auxiliary turbine engine that provides air and electricity when the main engines aren't running."

Normally, the cabin crew knows it's just a matter of minutes before the plane's air conditioning systems kick in, and they'll ask passengers to be patient.

Bottom line: Extreme temperatures are inevitable when you travel. Jamie Michael Hemmings, who runs a publishing company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, packs for the worst. On his frequent flights to New York, he brings a blanket and a jacket and never wears shorts, even in the summer. "Some flights feel like I'm in a blizzard, and if your neighbour turns on their vent, well, there goes the neighbourhood," he says.

Laura Gross, who works for a communications and event-planning company in Washington, dresses in layers when travelling. "Short sleeves or a sleeveless shirt, with a lightweight sweater that will easily scrunch up in my purse," she says. "I always wear pants, too. If bringing a carry-on, I will bring shorts or a dress to change into once I get to my destination, if I need to. I also bring socks in my purse to put on once I'm in my seat."

Crew members say they'll try to make your trip as comfortable as possible. But at a time of year when outside weather can be intense, and when the aging infrastructure isn't enough to protect you, cabin comfort is your responsibility. Bring a blanket, dress in layers and hope for the best.

The Washington Post

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