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Wrist watches usually use the barometric pressure sensors they have to calculate the altitude. I have also confirmed this from the manual of my watch, which states that:

The watch displays altitude values based on air pressure readings taken by a built-in pressure sensor.

Fine that's understood and makes sense and has always worked for me wherever I go.


But then how does it know altitude during flight? The cabin of all commercial airliners are pressurized and hence the air pressure is not changing inside the cabin with the change in altitude (as happens for descent or ascent on ground). I know that even the aircraft itself uses pressure sensors for many calculations but those sensors are mostly usually on the Pitot tube and they sense the real outside pressure and not inside an pressurized cabin

I would also like to mention that yes the altitude reading it takes during a flight is not always close to what the real value is but still it does track the altitude difference when pressure inside the cabin remains same, how so?

Please note

That I didn't include the exact details of my watch because neither am I promoting any special model or a brand nor am I asking specifics of how a watch works, focus is on air pressure inside the cabin, not on watch. If needed I can provide the model and manual reference links.

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But you should be more specific regarding what value it shows. – Jan Hudec Aug 24 '14 at 10:12
The pressure inside the cabin does NOT remain the same. That's why you need to equalise the pressure in your sinsuses, usually during descent. Your watch will be showing you the cabin altitude, probably somewhere around 2500 metres. Pitot tubes are not used to measure static pressure. They are used to measure dynamic pressure and calculate airspeed. – Simon Aug 24 '14 at 10:27
Thanks @Simon, Yes it does remain around there – Iceman Aug 24 '14 at 13:41
This may be interesting for you, too: What's the relation between cabin pressure and altitude? – sweber Oct 22 at 7:00
I assume your watch doesn't give an altitude reading above 10,000 feet or 3,000m, whereas a typical commercial flight cruises at over 30,000 feet or 10,000m. That means it shows the cabin pressure (which isn't constant) rather than the correct outside pressure. – tas Oct 23 at 4:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

The pressure in the cabin does not remain the same. It decreases, but much more slowly, in such a manner that when the aircraft is at 37000 feet the pressure in the cockpit is the equivalent of 7000 or 8000 feet. Keeping the cabin pressure at sea level would pose incredible stress on the fuselage, due to huge difference in pressure between the inside and the outside.

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This note by Boeing can substantiate this answer: Today's airplanes are pressurized to a typical cabin altitude of 6,500 to 7,000 feet (1,981 – 2,133 m), with a maximum certification altitude of 8,000 feet (2,438 m). – Iceman Aug 24 '14 at 11:58
"incredible stress on the fuselage" -- to be clear, do common planes have a hypothetical failure mode in which the plane fails to release pressure during ascent and the fuselage ruptures? By "hypothetical" I suppose I mean it's realistic, it is what would happen if pressure weren't released, but some kind of fail-safe doohickey no doubt would prevent that by blowing out first even if the normal systems failed to let any air out. – Steve Jessop Aug 24 '14 at 15:38
@SteveJessop: Yes, normally the system incorporates valves that will open if a certain pressure differential is reached (positive or negative). There should be at least two such valves and only half of them should be enough to keep the pressure difference between safe limits. – Emil Aug 24 '14 at 17:29
Like most things, there is some fail safe redundancy built in just in case the valves all fail. On some types, there are "frangible" panels or burst discs which will blow out to equalise the pressure. – Simon Aug 24 '14 at 21:05
Doesn't the 787 Dreamliner pressurize to a higher degree on account of its carbon fiber fuselage? – RoboKaren Aug 25 '14 at 4:45

Your Casio has an answer, but not the answer. It's detecting pressure change, as the pressure does decrease no matter what when gaining height in a plane, (which is why your ears pop,) from roughly 6000 to 8000 feet worth of pressure. Your watch can pick up on this change, but you won't often be flying at a height with the same pressure as the cabin. I note that you didn't say the figure, which would probably reveal that the cabin was changing in pressure, and thus altitude reading, but not what your real height was, i.e, the pressure outside of the plane.

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Yep absolutely! thanks for your answer – Iceman Oct 22 at 1:15

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