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I've got dysfunction in my ears; this drastically slows the regulation of pressure behind my eardrums. The result of this is that the pressure changes while flying put excessive pressure on my eardrums; very painful, and risks bursting them (which luckily has not happened thus far). I've flown 6 times - all a320s (inc. a319), on short 2hr-ish continental flights. I'd like to fly transatlantic, but I'm worried about eardrum damage.

I understand that newer airliners like the B787 and A350 are composite and can operate at a higher cabin pressure, reducing the pressure differential on my eardrums. Does anyone know of any airlines or flights who explicitly operate at higher pressure? Does anyone have experience with this sort of situation, or help with how else to manage it?

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    @Willeke "ask your family doctor" quite naturally follows. No way I am going to give actual medical advice, we are not that kind of forum.
    – chx
    Jul 3 at 18:11
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    @chx You're right; my doctor has suggested nasal steroids, so as to give my tubes more "oomph" in shifting air. His general opinion however was that for short and infrequent flights, the side effects outweighed the benefits.
    – T.S
    Jul 3 at 18:25
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    It’s worth noting that if the problem for you is the change in pressure rather than the low pressure (which is likely), then there will be no difference between a 2 hour flight and a 12-hour one: the only changes occur during take-off and landing (unless you happen to stumble on the extremely unlikely pressurisation incident).
    – jcaron
    Jul 3 at 21:39
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    The goal is usually to climb to cruising altitude as quickly as possible, and stay there as long as possible. Very short flights will often not have the time to reach the highest altitudes, but beyond 2 hours it should be the same. Note that aircraft don’t stay at the exact same altitude during the whole cruise, but the variations at those levels are quite small compared to what happens during takeoff and landing.
    – jcaron
    Jul 3 at 22:06
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    Also, I don’t know what your medical condition is, but something many inexperienced flyers don’t know: you need to swallow as much as possible during the pressure change phases. With properly functioning Eustachian tubes this will open them and regulate the pressure in your inner ear. Gum or lollipops are your friends.
    – jcaron
    Jul 3 at 22:11

1 Answer 1

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There are multiple aircraft that can operate at a higher cabin pressure. The cabin pressure is typically measured in "equivalent altitude" and ironically lower altitudes correspond to higher pressure (and vice versa).

For those who prefer "real units": 0 ft = 100 kPa, 4000 ft = 87.5 kPa, 6000 ft = 81.2 kPa, 8000 ft = 75 kPa, where kPa is a "kilo Pascal" with Pascal being the official unit of pressure (1 newton per square meter).

Legal requirement is 8000 ft and all commercial planes can do that. There are three planes that can operate at "higher pressures", i.e. 6000 ft. These are A380, A350, B787.

That means they CAN operate are higher pressures, but they don't have to and the airline is not going to guarantee it. This being said, it's a frequently advertised benefit, it's recommended by the manufacturer and it doesn't add significant operating cost, so there is little reason for the airline not to use the feature.

I was on one of the very first Lufthansa flights with the A350. Lufthansa made a big deal out of it and asked us to fill out a horribly overwrought survey to track how we were feeling during the flight.

Keep in mind that the actual pressure depends A LOT on your cruise altitude: while a clunky old Boeing 767 will can lower the pressure down to 8000 ft, it will only do so at a cruise altitude of 40,000 ft. If you are cruising at 30,000 ft the 767 operates at a pressure of about 4000 ft.

Your best bet is to go with a "modern" airplane (A380, A350, B787) and hope for the best. I also found that newer airplanes are quieter which makes IMO a big difference too. I highly recommend wearing noise cancelling headphones and ear buds. In my experience that reduces fatigue a lot more than fancy lighting or slightly low pressure and reduced fatigue makes it a lot easier to deal with ears popping and pressure problems.

Good luck

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    B777x (new models). -- the 777X is not in operation and won't be until 2025.
    – chx
    Jul 3 at 17:34
  • Thanks. Will fix (i got confused by the naming conventions)
    – Hilmar
    Jul 3 at 17:35
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    "The cabin pressure is typically measured in "equivalent elevation" and ironically lower elevations correspond to higher pressure (and vice versa)." Odd use of "ironically". Jul 4 at 4:28
  • You might want to look into pressure relieving ear plugs. They basically have a filter that slows down the pressure exchange. amazon.com/Macks-Flightguard-Airplane-Pressure-Earplugs/dp/…
    – delliottg
    Jul 7 at 17:26

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