An acquaintance of mine visiting western U.S. was recently a guest passenger in a small plane flying from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Colorado reaching an altitude of 11,000 feet. She related that she started experiencing hypoxia and there wasn't any supplemental oxygen available. Apparently they couldn't reduce altitude (mountains). She said that since then she has had trouble breathing, has gone for medical tests, etc.

I didn't want to be "that guy", so I didn't ask, but it occurred to me to wonder if the pilot was irresponsible in not having supplemental oxygen available. Apparently the pilot and his other passenger were from the area and acclimated to the altitude.

Since one can't just "ask" someone if they will be OK at that altitude, should the plane (pilot) have had oxygen available? In other words, is this an area of pilot responsibility?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Is flying at 14,000 MSL safe for children without supplemental oxygen? $\endgroup$ – fooot Jun 30 '16 at 22:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The cut-off is 12,500 feet for the requirement of supplemental oxygen, and this one doesn't involve children, so @fooot I don't see why this is a duplicate question? $\endgroup$ – falstro Jun 30 '16 at 22:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @falstro the answers provide good general advice which seems to be the same, consulting a regular doctor rather than a pediatrician, of course. $\endgroup$ – fooot Jun 30 '16 at 22:19
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Federico that question answers a different question, and is unlikely to attract answers that are specific to this question. By closing the question, you're effectively suppressing people from answering this specific question. Just because a different question has an answer that you decide apply to this question, doesn't mean there aren't other answers that fit better that are not applied to the other question. So yes. It is a dilemma. $\endgroup$ – falstro Jul 1 '16 at 7:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Federico yes, that is the goal, but there is a condition that requires it to be the same question, and not simply one that will receive related answers. Learning whether or not 14,000 Ft. is safe for child-passengers doesn't inform me at all of whether the pilot has a duty of care for anyone's oxygen levels at 11,000 Ft. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen Jul 1 '16 at 14:47

There is no regulatory requirement for oxygen to be available for anyone on board an aircraft so long as it remains at altitudes of 12,500' MSL or less. And only the required minimum flight crew is required to have oxygen if they are flying above 12,500' up to and including 14,000 MSL' IF they will be at those altitudes for more than 30 minutes. CFR 91.211 If they were going above 15,000' MSL that would be another story. So the short of it is, No, that pilot was not irresponsible, perhaps, maybe slightly inconsiderate, but not irresponsible.

The reason for this is the lower density of the air isn't low enough to harm the majority of passengers. Except for extreme cases, such as those with severe and uncontrolled asthma or heavy smokers, the worst thing that would happen would be the passengers would just get sleepy and fall asleep. This is natural, and because the body does not need as much oxygen when asleep. For passengers there generally won't be any harm done from a mild case altitude induced hypoxic hypoxia.

And YES! You can ask someone if they will be 'OK' at higher altitudes! Just as it is not only 'OK' but required to ask their weight for weight and balance calculations. (And quite frankly I believe most people find that more intrusive.)
In fact you should take 5 minutes to tell your passengers that the flight will be in excess of, say 11,000', that way they can be prepared for some unusual effects and not have to worry about them. To take it a step further, remember you are the Pilot in Command and you should be aware of your passenger's limitations as that may trigger any self imposed safety limitations you have for the safety of the flight.

Now, if you just want passengers to be comfortable and/or they absolutely insist on not taking a little nap, then it is entirely up to you if you want to carry a portable aviation oxygen canister with you for your passengers.

For further information on hypoxia I would recommend the FAA's page on it and the differing effects on pilots, and by extension passengers.

Hope this helps!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In some people, especially at night, hypoxia symptoms can occur at altitudes as low as 5000 feet. Certainly as a pilot if I'm flying above 8000 feet I'd want an O2 meter to determine levels of hypoxia in myself, but passengers are a different story (they aren't flying the plane). $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jul 1 '16 at 1:17
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Classical skiing regions in europe are higher, using the term health-threatening is somewhat funny. Maybe she was just sick. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jul 1 '16 at 8:51
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The transition-time is a point. But waiting for more red blood cells will not work, you need days or even weeks for this type of altitude training. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jul 1 '16 at 9:45
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @falstro You have to live at altitude for weeks for your body to adapt to it. A slow drive up a mountain isn't nearly enough time to change anything, so a ski resort above 11000 is no different from that flight. $\endgroup$ – Carey Gregory Jul 2 '16 at 1:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Even though one can ask passengers whether they will be OK with this-or-that altitude, chances are that the passenger who'll have a problem won't have the faintest idea what they can handle if you ask them before departing. So you can ask all you want, you just won't get any wiser from the answer you get. In contrast, if you ask for someone's weight, there a good possibility that they know the correct answer. The two questions are not comparable at all. $\endgroup$ – hmakholm left over Monica Jul 2 '16 at 8:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.