Decreasing Flow of Oxygen to Save Fuel on Airplanes

Q: I’ve heard that the pilots decrease airflow in the cabin to save fuel. Also, is it true that the amount of oxygen is intentionally reduced to keep passengers docile?

Somebody is getting a lot of mileage (pun intended) from the decreased-fresh-air-to-save fuel bit. This comes up quite often. But while the airlines might be penny-pinchers, never once, at any company, have I been instructed to cut down on air circulation to save fuel. Somehow I think a planeload of pissed off passengers negates the marginal benefit of a few saved gallons of kerosene. That said, yes, the air conditioning systems on certain airplanes are better than others, some of them notoriously deficient. But the crew has no control over inherent design, and no pilot would cut back the air to stretch out fuel.

There is no truth whatsoever to the second and far more outrageous part of the question. Keep in mind that the cockpit is not a sealed chamber with its own pressurization system. Passengers and crew are breathing the same air, and there is no way to tinker with the cabin oxygen without affecting the cockpit as well. The crew could don oxygen masks, I suppose, but the idea of the pilots sitting there with masks on, dialing up the pressurization to partially suffocate the passengers, is a bit preposterous, don’t you think?


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.