Ear Pain during flying - Is it negligence ?

I know ear pain during flights is common although it varies from person to person. But here is something I want to know.

Before landing (10-30 mins), when the plane is gliding down, I feel the pain more. I think the pilot just turns down the engines and lets the plane glide down. This I think results in the air compressors to slow down and do a bad job of keeping up the cabin pressure. Am I right here ??

Is there any regulation to prevent pilots from turning down the engines and hence the air compressors and thus cause discomfort to passengers. I believe they save on fuel when they turn down the engines so they have an economic motive.

Is there any regulation on the part of airplane manufacturers to have the air compressors independent of the air plane engines ??

Finally is there any device which I can carry into an airplane that tells me when the pressure is really harmful to humans (If coffee burns are taken seriously why not ears ??? ). IS there any such device installed on the plane ??

I think the airlines go scot free because no one can say the airplane was unsafe during the time they were in it. I think the airlines should guarantee a certain pressure during the entire duration, passengers are in the flight AND there should be a device to measure the pressure WHICH can be checked by the passengers.

I don’t know if there are regulations regarding the pressurization of a cabin. That said I think you have a few things backwards here.

The cabin pressure at cruising altitude is lower than it is at sea level. When you are landing the pressure is increasing. A pressurized cabin only means that the pressure is greater than the surrounding air. Overpressurizing the cabin (say to sea level pressure) unduly stresses the airframe…the plane is basically trying to explode. They could certainly make aplane strong enough for this but that would drastically increase the weight of the plane cutting down on fuel economy and cargo capacity.

Air compressors for the cabin are independent of the engines. The compressors in the engine are for engine power only. The compressors for the cabin are electrically run from power from the engines. Even at idle the engines generate enough electricity for the entire plane’s systems including the ventilation systems. As a result there is no economic motive to push air pressure one way or the other to save on fuel (there’s no connection there).

In short, the internal air pressure of the plane is maintained at levels appropriate for the aircraft frame. The tradeoff between passenger comfort and airline economics is the balance. Most people find the pressure change slightly uncomfortable but generally tolerable. Some people (like you apparently) and people with sinus infections have a harder time equalizing their ears. If you’re really blocked up (as my wife once was while flying) the pain can be intolerable. It’s up to you whether you should fly or not given your circumstances.

Air pressure is caused, in simple terms, by the amount to air piled up above you. At sea level (and below) it is greatest and as you climb away from sea level it becomes less and less.

What hurts your ears when taking off in an airplane is that the air pressure outside is becoming less and less, but the pressure inside your sinuses is having a hard time adjusting thru its ducts. When you get to cruising altitude and your sinuses adjust everything is peachy. Then the descent begins and the reverse problem happens. Air pressure is becoming more and more, but your sinuses are having to adjust to this.

I’ve had some flight training so let me also explain climbing and descent. When taking off you give the plane lots of power and when you reach a certain speed you raise the nose and off you go. Power is decreased somewhat but is still left on high and the nose is elevated. It takes these two things to climb in a plane, power and attitude of the nose. When you get to the desired altitude you set the power at the cruise setting and level the nose. When descending you reduce power and lower the nose.

The point is that the pilots are not doing anything else than flying according to how an airplane should be flown. If they did not reduce power the airplane would descend too fast and the effect on your ears would be even worse.

I also doubt if the air compressors are set according to the engines (I would bet against it). The problem is getting the exact air pressure at a particular altitude while in the process of changing altitudes.

Pilots may become acclimated to the problem somewhat, but they have colds and allergies, just like the rest of us.

Another variable is where you take off and where you land. The worst experience I’ve had recently was flying from Houston, TX (sea level) to San Jose, Costa Rica (6000+ ft). The plane had kept my ears in fairly good shape while flying, but hadn’t made them ready for the high altitude on arrival.

As an airliner descends the cabin pressure is increasing, not decreasing. The reason it can be more painful coming down is that it is usually more difficult for air to get into your middle ear than it is for air to get out.

The air compressors can’t really be made separate from the engines since the engines are the air compressors. Jet engines are essentially just big air compressors and air is bled off them to heat and pressurize tha cabin. Cabin pressure isn’t really maintained by regulating the amount of air bled off, but is set by how much air is allowed to escape. The engines really never have trouble keeping up, when the pilots want to increase cabin pressure they tighten the valve that releases air out.

The problem arises because the valves in your ear that control the pressure work (The Eustacian Tube) better in one direction than the other. As the pressure is falling (when the plane is rising to cruising altitude) your body has no problem equalizing the pressure. As the pressure increases however it is not as effective. All things you do to “pop” your ears on descent – such as yawning and swallowing, stretch the area allowing the equalization.

hey look! You can read about the details on the Straight Dope!

Aeospace Engineers check me on this, but if the Jet turbines weren’t cut for part of the descent wouldn’t the plane be going rather too fast to land safely?

If your ears always hurt during landing and/or take-off, you can try chewing gum during these parts of the flights. Frequent swallowing helps equalize the pressure in your ear. If they only hurt when you are stuffed up from a cold or allergy, you might want to postpone flying or try a decongestant before the plane descends.

Some people have trouble equalizing all the time because of a deviated nasal septum. A doctor could check this out for you. The cure is surgery.

FYI, the pilots are at the same pressure as the passengers. A major problem for commercial pilots is when congestion, etc, causes any ear blockage, they can’t/wont fly because major ear problem can ground a pilot, they also don’t want to injure themselves, logically enough.

This is a much bigger incentive to both the pilots and the airlines than fuel expenditure, which (literally), changes with the weather. It’s a down side to flying, if you have any congestion, scarring from past infections, or narrow eustacian tubes you will feel it more.

Also, if you are feeling the pain during landing, what you are feeling is the increasing air pressure as the compressor turn off, so what you’re complaining about is the return to normal pressure, not the reduction to the 80% level you’ve been under at flight levels. You feel the pressure differential more on descent because the lower pressure is now in your middle ear, which tends to partially collapse the eustachia tubes and makes them hard to clear.

Where the “cost cutting”, if you want to call it that, occurs is right in the aircraft manufacture. Manufacturers are designing for the optimal combination of uplift, fuel usage, safety and manuverability, for the various uses the industry requires, and AFAIK compressors are only designed to maintain the (standard) 80% cabin pressure. Most people find that only a minor inconvenience. So really, you’re complaining about how aircraft are currently designed… Even if they wanted to “turn up” the compressors for your comfort, it isn’t an option.
Better write a letter to Boeing.

A decongestant before the flight is a good idea. Or seek alternate methods of transportation, I suppose. But you might want to do a little research before starting to complain of deliberate negligence, all this info is readily available online.

Not quite. Commercial aircraft are pressurized by drawing compressed air out of the engines and blowing it into the cabin. Don’t panic - this all happens upstream of where fuel is injected. The cabin can also be pressurized using air from the auxiliary power unit (a small gas turbine), if the aircraft is equipped with one. This “bypass” air is a small but significant portion of the engines’ total airflow.

However, regulations do require that airlines pressurize their cabins to below 10,000 ft pressure altitude, no matter how high they go. This represents a maximum pressure change in the cabin of 4.6 psi (sea level air pressure is 14.7 psi), which is not harmful to most people.

As described above, during climb and descent, cabin air pressure changes (except in a non-pressurized cabin, of course). Difference in pressure between the outside and inside of the ear causes discomfort or even pain. Similar effect to diving 10 ft or more under water.

The solution:

  • Yawn (99% guaranteed to work - this is why the articles in inflight magazines are specially chosen to be extremely boring)
  • Swallow (doesn’t usually work very well)
  • Blow your nose (last resort - do it very, very gently)

No. Most airliners are designed so the cabin air pressure never falls below that at 8000 feet above sea level. So, up to 8000 the pressure inside should equal that outside. Above 8000 feet the cabin pressure is maintained at 8000 feet. So, between 8000 to 30,000 the pressure shouldn’t change. It’s when you get below 8000 feet above sea level that the pressure changes, and in that case it is INcreasing. The pain you feel is because your inner ear isn’t keeping up with the change.

I am not an airline pilot, so I may be off on this, but I’m pretty sure the big guys normally descend at about 500 feet per minute. This is slow enough that few people feel pain, just discomfort that can be relieved by yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum.

If you always experience pain during descent then you may have something awry with your inner ear or eustachian tubes. If it’s congestion ask a doctor for a good decongestant you can take before flying - that may be all you need. Or you may have some problem that only causes problems while flying. The cures for that are various, from surgery to simply not flying anymore.

Well, yes, they burn less fuel when “turning down the engines”, but mostly it’s a matter of why use an engine to get you closer to the ground when gravity will do the job for you? And, as pointed out, running the engines at a higher speed while descending will tend to make you land too fast, which can translate into too hard, and that could be a Bad Thing.

As I said - they aren’t turning down the air compressors, they’re letting the interior cabin pressure rise along with the increase in air pressure outside.

Yes, there is such a device(s) installed in the cockpit so the pilots can monitor the air pressure.

If you really feel compelled to self-monitor cabine pressure buy a resonably accurate barometer, one calibrated for sea level pressure as 29.92 and take it on board with you. The pressure should never fall below that at 8000 feet above sea level under standard conditions… which come to think of it, I can’t remember right now. Oh, bother. I’ll dig up my flight computer and figure it out, post it later if someone else doesn’t beat me to it.

“Harmful to humans” varies somewhat - the airlines do care, because they want you to come back and give them more money to buy tickets to go places. Normal cabin pressure changes may be annoying to people, but I haven’t heard of anyone’s eardrums blowing out or other catastrophic things of that nature.

Well… if you don’t know what the normal reading for such a device would be, how would being able to look at it help you?

Anyhow - as I said, there is a specified minimum cabin pressure maintained, and pressure changes are made at a speed most people can tolerate. Unfortunately, you may be more sensitive than most. In which case - see my above statements about decongestants and doctor consultation if you must fly.

Chew gum.
Take a decongestant.

Standard atmospheric lapse rate is one inch of mercury per 1000 feet, so an 8000ft altitude would be roughly 21.92 in/Hg.

I think there are devices for climbers that will give altitude and even a computerized vertical speed indicator. Might give that a try if you are REALLY curious.

I don’t think it works like that. I think airliners maintain the pressure of departure airport until they reach maximum differential, then keep the pressure difference at the maximum all the way up to crusing altitude. That way the cabin “climbs” much more slowly than the aircraft.

I think they decend faster than that, but the cabin only has to “descend” 8,000 feet, in the same amount of time the airplane needs to descend 30,000 feet. So, the cabin “decent” rate is far slower than the actual decent rate.

A Garmin eTrex Summit is an example of a handheld GPS receiver with a built-in transducer that measures ambient pressure. Normally, what it’s measuring is atmospheric pressure. If you take this in a plane, it will tell you the equivalent cabin altitude (it will even make a record of it).

Surprisingly, if held up to a window it will usually lock on to enough satellites that it can tell you lat/lon, ground speed, etc.

Well, there I go showing my flatland bias - if you take off from Chicago, for instance, you start at about 600 feet sea level, which is very little difference. Ditto for LaGuardia, Kennedy, Miami… lots of major airport at or very near sea level.

What you describe might make a significant difference in, say Colorado.

So… how fast do you think they descend?

Even a 1000 feet per minute descent won’t bother most people, especially if they keep that jaw working.

Back when I was learning and would come in too high over the runway and dive for the pavement, racking up 1500-2000 foot rates of descent for part of the approach, my old flight instructor used to say things like “That was an impressive display of control, but don’t do things like that with passengers. You’ll scare the hell out of the tourists.” No ear discomfort, though. YMMV

Thanks all for the replies. But, I still think its negligence on the part of airlines / airplane manufacturers because :

1> Most of the people I have talked to, have experienced ear discomfort sometime or the other. This proves that its a common problem, and the airline simply cannot assume that you will have no problems.

2> Yes opening and closing your jaws, etc. etc. helps but again this type of control is with the passenger not the system which really should be the case. It is the airline’s job to ensure that cabin conditions are not discomforting to passengers at all times. Just like you cannot have loud music (hurts the ears) in a public place, and cannot get around it by asking people to wear ear plugs.

3> There is no published research done as to really see whats really uncomfortable (again I blame the airlines and manufacturers). How can they assume that the air pressure inside the cabin is always safe when they have no hard published data to prove it ? How do you know that no one is suffering permanent damage when you have no published data here ?? And how do you know that chewing gum solves the problem without any published data ?

4> The passenger may take steps to prevent discomfort based on his or her medical conditions provided the airlines published their expected cabin pressures and expected rate of pressure changes. And it should not be considered a safe flight if the airlines (for whatever reasons) violated these pressures during flight.
Thats just my opinion. I see no reason whatsover why the airlines/maufacturers cannot improve this system. Simply saying that it happens and sitting down is not the way we should go, I think.

What they taught me in the Navy has worked for my thousands of hours in the air. Work your jaw on the way up (chew, swallow) and, like Johnny mentioned, valsalva on the way down. Valsalva only if you’re starting to feel pressure in your ear(s)… I’ve only needed to do it when I’m a little congested and my Afrin isn’t doing the trick. YMMV.

The reason is that lowering the cabin pressure reduces stress on the aircraft hull. Atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 29" Hg. At 30,000 feet altitude the outside pressure is 9", so there is a differential pressure of 20" on the hull. If you reduce the interior pressure to 8,000 feet equivalent (i.e. 22"), the differential pressure is only 13". You’ve reduced the stress on the aircraft hull by 35% at a cost of slight discomfort to the passengers. It’s certainly possible to make aircraft which can withstand the full 20" pressure differential, but such an aircraft would be heavier and more expensive to operate. If that’s what the majority of customers want then that’s what they’d build, but aircraft manufactuers know that most passenges would rather have cheap fares than aural comfort.

By the way, do business jets have higher cabin pressures? I’d think some of those customers would value comfort over economy.

I don’t think the cabin pressures are lower than 8,000 feet becaus of economics. I think they are 8,000 feet because of safety.

When jet passenger aircraft were first introduced by the British, a couple of DeHaviland Comet aircraft were mysteriously lost. Examination of the wreckage proved the culprit was metal fatigue. It’s not just a case of having a vessel strong enough to withstand x pressure; the aircraft goes through what is called “pressurization cycles”. Each time the aircraft is pressurized, the fuselage expands. When it is depressurized, it contracts. After thousands of flights all of this expanding and contracting fatigues the aluminum. If aircraft were pressurized to a lower altitude (say, for convenience, sea level) fatigue would be more rapid because the greater pressure causes greater flex.

Would you rather have your ears pop, or have the aircraft you’re riding in disintegrate?

Most people don’t experience ear discomfort in pressurized aircraft. There is no great conspiracy, and there is no negligence on the part of the airline. Supplemental oxygen is not required for the cockpit crew until the cabin pressure is above 10,000 feet and the passengers can go up to (I think) 14,000 feet before requiring oxygen. (As a helicopter pilot who flies around at 500 feet above ground level, I heven’t kept track of the oxygen requirements.) In any case, people are perfectly capable of sitting in a cabin at 8,000 feet without discomfort.

If someone has discomfort routinely when flying, then there’s something wrong with that person, not the aircraft or airline. The remedial steps have already been mentioned. The best advice for people who suffer from chronic ear pain while flying is to go to a doctor. He may prescribe dicongestants, or he may recommend surgery.

You probably shouldn’t scuba dive either.

I think they are the same thing. If you used the current aircraft, it’d be dangerous to keep it pressurized at 1 atmosphere, as you said. But it’s possible to design and build an aircraft that is safe to operate with a 1-atmosphere cabin pressure. The problem is that such an aircraft would be heavier than the current airliners, making them more expensive to operate (more fuel required, etc.)