3 Freaky Facts You Never Knew About Airplane Oxygen Masks

You've seen flight attendants' demo a million times — but do you know how they really work?

You don’t have to be a jet setter to have heard flight attendants’ rote speech about oxygen masks so many times you could practically recite it — you know, the bit about making sure to secure your own mask before helping others, and the whole thing. The demonstration is totally predictable, and the object seems downright ordinary… until you have to use one.

But even then, would you know what it’s actually doing to keep you safe and healthy up there — or how?

Travel + Leisure recently covered in detail what the masks actually do, as well as why, and how. “When you’re flying, you’re (obviously) at a much higher altitude than normal. The air is thinner, which means there’s less oxygen. On board every plane is a sophisticated pressure system that ensures everyone can breathe normally, but if something happens where there’s a sudden loss in pressure, the effect could be dangerous.”

What would happen then? Well, specifically, according to T+L, “A loss of oxygen to the body causes causes something called hypoxia, the effects of which are confusion, cough, nausea, rapid breathing, changes in skin color, and headaches. If oxygen deficiency continues over a long enough period of time, it can cause unconsciousness, permanent brain damage or even death.”

When your mask is covering your face, it’s giving you the flow you need to avoid those outcomes. That’s the good news.

The bad news — for people whose brains tend to relentlessly churn scary information — is...

1.  It's only enough for a few minutes.

The the supply of oxygen is merely enough for a few minutes' time, ideally sufficient for the pilots, who are wearing their own masks up front, to take the plane down to a level around 10,000 feet, where passengers can breathe more easily.

Another fact you likely hadn’t considered:

2.  The oxygen doesn't even exist until you need it.

It would be much too heavy for aircraft to carry oxygen tanks above every seat. So instead, panels above passengers include a mix of chemicals that create oxygen when burned. Tugging on the bag, as you're always instructed to do, starts that process.

As you've also heard many times that you shouldn't freak out if your bag doesn't inflate. Specifically, though, what the flight crew means is:

3.  The oxygen flow doesn't inflate the bag.

The size of the bag has to do instead with the rate of the passenger's breathing. If you're a heavy breather — and you sure might become one under frightening conditions — your bag will actually be thinner. And if you're not, your bag will inflate more.

And now you know!

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