We all know the phrase… “Should the cabin experience sudden pressure loss, Oxygen masks will drop down from above your seat. Place the mask over your mouth and nose.” But have we all thought about what we would do should this actually happen?

Decompression is an unplanned drop in pressure. Commercial aircraft cabins are pressurized to an equivalent of 8,000ft… when you’re actually at 40,000ft. This allows us passengers to breathe comfortably and enjoy the flight. However if something breaks that pressure seal, we’re immediately exposed to an extreme switch in altitude and only have a mere seconds of useful consciousness.

Albeit rare, these cases do happen. For example, the 2008 Qantas flight that landed with a giant hole in it, or the more recent Southwest incident.

So what happens if your plane suddenly depressurizes? At first, you’ll probably feel like you’re rushing up a skyscraper elevator. Your ears will pop and you may experience some temporary hearing problems. Hold your nose and blow the air out of your ears, you shouldn’t experience any long term effects from this.

Next, the plane should drop. But don’t panic, this is the pilot flying to a lower altitude where humans can breathe the outside air. You may also see what appears to be smoke in the air. This is usually just vapour or mist that comes from a sudden change in pressure. If it is smoke, you’ll be able to smell it.

At some point the oxygen masks will drop down. If they drop before you feel any discomfort- put them on immediately, as the pressure leak could be gradual and you may not feel the effects yet. If they happened to drop by accident- then you just take it off and no harm done. If they drop after an impact, also put them on immediately. Without a mask on, you will likely pass out within a minute or so, which is why it’s so important to secure your own before assisting others. Passing out from decompression in itself shouldn’t be fatal though, assuming you’re flown to a breathable altitude soon after. The masks provide 10-15 minutes of Oxygen to help us breathe comfortably until the plane reaches that altitude.

If you happen to be in the washroom when the masks drop, get to the nearest empty seat and put on both the mask and the seat belt. If you know someone who is in the washroom, do not attempt to go help them. Instead flag down a flight attendant if possible, as they have portable oxygen. For this reason, I always recommend that parents accompany their children to the washroom and wait outside in case of any emergency.

In the case that your mask doesn’t deploy, you can often pry it open with little effort. If you can’t gain access and there are no empty seats nearby, it is possible to share with your neighbour.

Due to the possibility of any emergency, including decompression, it is so important to wear your seat belt at all times. If you’re asleep without being belted in, a quick plunge of the plane to reach that lower altitude could send you flying too.

Decompression can be extremely scary, but it is survivable and very rare. If you’re worried, book a seat closer to the middle of the aircraft, or you can actually travel with portable oxygen. Overall though, pay attention to the safety videos and follow the emergency instructions and you will be okay.

Happy and safe travels!

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