A recent Southwest Airlines flight en route from Kansas City to Dallas lost cabin pressure at 35,000 feet, with about 135 people on board. The oxygen masks were deployed and the plane rapidly descended. According to news reports, a passenger stated that the plane went into a sudden, steep dive. The oxygen masks were needed for around twenty minutes, and the plane ultimately landed safely. Without cabin pressurization, oxygen masks are necessary above 10,000 feet.
What is cabin pressurization, why it is necessary, and what types of injuries can result from the sudden loss of it at high altitude? The passenger cabins of commercial airliners are pressurized using air generated by the engines. The compressed air is pumped into the airplane’s cabin to maintain a comfortable – not to mention safe – environment for the passengers and crew. It is required because the air at high altitudes is thin, cold and does not contain enough oxygen for humans to breathe.
A pressurized cabin has been described as a leaking balloon that is being constantly inflated. Without it, passengers would suffer from hypoxia and would quickly lose consciousness. Even mild hypoxia can be fatal if not handled properly.
Cabin pressurization is a critical component to safe flight. Luckily, in the recent case of the Southwest Airlines flight, the pilot was able to land the plane safely. Whether and how passengers were impacted by this incident remains an open question. Southwest removed the plane from service after the incident for inspection and/or maintenance, but it has since been returned to flights. The cause of the loss of pressure in this case has not yet been made public.
If you have any questions about this flight or any other aviation law issue, please contact William Angelley at (214) 826-5400.