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Aircraft Pressurisation Systems

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Category: Flight Technical Flight Technical
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
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A system which ensures the comfort and safety of crew and passengers by controlling the cabin pressure and the exchange of air from the inside of the aircraft to the outside.


Aircraft engines become more efficient with increase in altitude, burning less fuel for a given airspeed. In addition, by flying above weather and associated turbulence, the flight is smoother and the aircraft less fatigued. Crews will therefore normally fly as close to the aircraft’s Cruise Ceiling as they can depending on flight rules and any other constraints such as the aircraft oxygen system. In order to be able to fly at high attitudes, the aircraft needs to be pressurised so that the crew and passengers can breathe without the need for supplemental oxygen.

The cabin and cargo holds (or baggage compartments) on most aircraft are contained within a sealed unit which is capable of containing air under pressure higher than the Ambient Pressure outside of the aircraft. Bleed Air from the turbine engines is used to pressurise the cabin and air is released from the cabin by an Outflow Valve. By using a cabin pressure regulator, to manage the flow of air through the outflow valve, the pressure within the aircraft can be increased or decreased as required, either to maintain a set Differential Pressure or a set Cabin Altitude.

In practice, as an aircraft climbs, for the comfort of the passengers, the pressurisation system will gradually increase the cabin altitude and the differential pressure at the same time. If the aircraft continues to climb once the maximum differential pressure is reached, the differential pressure will be maintained while the cabin altitude climbs. The maximum cruise altitude will be limited by the need to keep the cabin altitude at or below 8,000 ft.

A safety valve:

  • acts as a relief valve, releasing air from the cabin to prevent the cabin pressure from exceeding the maximum differential pressure,
  • acts a vacuum relief valve, allowing air into the cabin when the ambient pressure exceeds the cabin pressure, and
  • acts as a dump valve, allowing the crew to dump cabin air manually.

A Cabin Altimeter, Differential Pressure Gauge, and Cabin Rate of Climb gauge help the crew to monitor the aircraft pressurisation.

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Accident & Incidents

Events held on the SKYbrary A&I database which include reference to the air conditioning system include:

  • B762, San Francisco CA USA, 2008 (On 28 June 2008 a Boeing 767-200 being operated as a Public Transport cargo flight by ABX Air (DHL) experienced a ground fire after loading had been completed and all doors closed and just before engine startup at night. The fire was located in the supernumerary compartment of the airplane. This compartment, which is present on some cargo airplanes, is located directly aft of the cockpit and forward of the main deck cargo compartment which is where the toilet, galley, and three non-flight crew seats are located (see diagram below).The flight crew evacuated the aircraft through the flight deck windows and were not injured, but the aircraft was substantially fire damaged and later classified as a hull loss.)
  • H25B / AS29, en-route / manoeuvring, near Smith NV USA, 2006 (On 28 August 2006, a Hawker 800 collided with a glider at 16,000 feet in Class 'E' airspace. The glider became uncontrollable and its pilot evacuated by parachute. The Hawker was structurally damaged and one engine stopped but it was recovered to a nearby airport. The Investigation noted that the collision had occurred in an area well known for glider activity in which transport aircraft frequently avoided glider collisions using ATC traffic information or by following TCAS RAs. The glider was being flown by a visitor to the area with its transponder intentionally switched off to conserve battery power.)
  • B764, en-route, Audincourt France, 2017 (On 23 August 2017, a Boeing 767-400ER which had departed Zurich for a transatlantic crossing experienced a problem with cabin pressurisation as the aircraft approached FL 100 and levelled off to run the applicable checklist. However, despite being unable to confirm that the pressurisation system was functioning normally, the climb was then re-commenced resulting in a recurrence of the same problem and a MAYDAY emergency descent from FL 200. The Investigation found that an engineer had mixed up which pressurisation system valve was to be de-activated before departure and that the flight crew decision to continue the climb had been risky.)
  • B744, en-route, South China Sea, 2008 (On 25 July 2008, a Boeing 747 suffered a rapid depressurisation of the cabin following the sudden failure of an oxygen cylinder, which had ruptured the aircraft's pressure hull. The incident occurred 475 km north-west of Manila, Philippines.)
  • B738, Glasgow UK, 2012 (On 19 October 2012, a Jet2-operated Boeing 737-800 departing Glasgow made a high speed rejected take off when a strange smell became apparent in the flight deck and the senior cabin crew reported what appeared to be smoke in the cabin. The subsequent emergency evacuation resulted in one serious passenger injury. The Investigation was unable to conclusively identify a cause of the smoke and the also- detected burning smells but excess moisture in the air conditioning system was considered likely to have been a factor and the Operator subsequently made changes to its maintenance procedures.)

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