What Is the Altitude of a Plane in Flight?
Altitude of a Plane: How High do Planes Fly?
Commercial airplanes fly pretty high, mostly so you can’t throw rocks or day-old bread at them. OK, that’s not the real reason. But the typical “cruising altitude” – that is, the highest altitude reached during a flight and sustained between the ascent of takeoff and the descent of landing – is around 35,000 feet. That’s nearly 7 miles up in the air, above sea level. However, the number generally varies from about 33,000 feet to higher altitudes of about 42,000 feet. Specific altitudes are meant for specific types of aircraft. Private jets typically take the higher end, cruising at around 41,000 feet, so they can travel the most direct route above all the commercial air traffic. Light aircraft typically stick to lower altitudes, closer to 10,000 feet.
Cruising altitude is the height that an aircraft will spend the majority of the flight until it reaches its destination. As mentioned before, the cruising altitude is different for many different kinds of aircrafts. High altitude versus low altitude makes all the difference for an aircraft, based on factors like the aircraft’s size, fuel capacity, purpose, and more. Here are some examples of different cruising altitudes depending on the aircraft:
- Commercial plane: 33,000 - 42,000 ft.
- Boeing 747: 35,105 ft.
- 737 jet: 37,000 - 41,000 ft.
- Cessna (recreational aircraft): 13,000 - 15,000 ft.
Now, let’s talk a little bit more about altitude.
Is It Arbitrary?
Nope. There are good reasons commercial jets travel at 35,000 feet or a little higher. For example, the thin air at this height is crucial. This is the sweet spot where the air is thin enough to greatly reduce drag, yet there’s still enough oxygen to feed the engines. Less drag and less resistance means using less fuel, thus increasing fuel efficiency and decreasing operational costs.
Also, atmospheric conditions are important to take into account. Most weather occurs in the layer of Earth’s atmosphere closest to the ground – the troposphere, for those of you who weren’t paying attention in science class – and this extends to around 36,000 feet up.
Flying at the top of this layer minimizes turbulence and helps the plane mostly avoid flying through thunderstorms and other bad weather events. It also puts planes above flying objects and wildlife like birds, swarms of locusts, propeller and single-engine planes, and helicopters. And, though this may not sound all that reassuring, this altitude gives pilots more time to fix problems or prepare for an emergency landing should something go wrong.
As for light aircraft, they stay below about 10,000 feet because they don’t have pressurized cabins. Everyone on board – including the pilot – would have to breathe from oxygen masks for the whole flight if they climbed higher.
Is It Scary?
No matter how many times it’s stated, the fact that commercial flight is statistically way safer than driving a car brings little comfort to people with a fear of flying. If you’re an aviophobe and the thought of ascending some 35,000 feet up into the sky and hurtling along at about 600 miles per hour freaks you out, or if you just experience significant anxiety at any point during a flight, there are some ways to cope. Because taking a boat to Australia when you only have two weeks’ paid vacation really isn’t practical.
Start by educating yourself about planes and flying and getting well-acquainted with the types of sudden movements and noises that are common during a flight. Being better informed and knowing what to expect and what’s normal can remove a lot of anxiety. Suppress the urge to toss back a few preflight adult beverages at the terminal bar and onboard, as alcohol is more likely to exacerbate anxiety and make you feel a little queasy than to actually take the edge off.
On the plane – especially during takeoff, landing and bouts of turbulence – consciously replace negative worst-case-scenario-type doom-and-gloom thoughts with a positive mantra. Throw in some calming happy-place visualization while you’re at it. Breathe deeply in a controlled manner, and, weird as it sounds, some pilots suggest actually clenching your butt cheeks together. Distract yourself with a crossword puzzle, Sudoku or writing your name repeatedly with your non-dominant hand. Also, sitting at the front of the aircraft usually reduces the bumpiness of turbulence, so try to reserve seats there if possible.
Flight attendants pass through the main cabin frequently, and you can press the call button any time you need their assistance. If you have any questions or specific anxieties about the flight, you can always turn to the flight attendants for help. And remember to always wear your seat belt!
Is It Sickening?
Along with the fear of flying, some people experience uncomfortable ear popping, motion sickness or other physical discomfort during flight. Ear popping occurs during changes in altitude and air pressure, especially during the rapid climb and descent of takeoff and landing. Clogging ears are unpleasant, but also downright painful for some airplane passengers. And a stuffy nose can make the problem more severe. Different remedies work best for different people, but some of the most effective include talking, swallowing, yawning, chewing gum, sucking on a hard candy, using an oxymetazoline nasal spray or wearing special earplugs made for this purpose. Also, for those who suffer serious pain from popping ears, direct flights are preferable to connecting flights; being in the air longer doesn’t increase clogging, but extra trips up to and down from that final cruising altitude do.
Passengers who contend with motion sickness while flying should avoid alcohol and greasy, fatty, salty, spicy or heavy meals in the 24 hours leading up to a flight and onboard the plane. Bring a plain, light, TSA-approved snack in your carry-on, stay well hydrated and don’t read on the plane, and stare at a fixed point in the cabin when that feeling of unease or illness starts setting in.
When flying coach, request a seat at the front of the aircraft or at the base of the wings to minimize exposure to the motions that often trigger sickness. Open the overhead air vents all the way and aim them right at your face. Ginger soothes an upset stomach for some people, and there’s an acupressure trick that involves pressing down on the center of the wrist 2 inches below its crease; vary the amount of pressure until you feel relief, and then hold it for a few minutes. Self-medicating with the antihistamine dimenhydrinate is another option, but keep in mind that it can cause significant drowsiness.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about 5,000 planes are in the sky at any given time every day. With all these planes at various flight levels and safety systems like air traffic control in place, flying as a way of transportation is incredibly safe. While flying high might seem daunting, it can be a very relaxing and enjoyable experience for many frequent flyers. Plus, flights can get you to faraway places at record speeds – who doesn’t love that?