When watching a commercial aircraft traverse the sky from the ground below, they can often look so tiny with how high they are in the atmosphere. On average, aircraft traverse at an altitude of 36,000 feet, placing themselves at a height that requires pressurized cabins to keep passengers safe and comfortable. With the extreme atmospheric temperatures, high pressure differences, and lack of breathable air at the altitude at which commercial airplanes fly, one may wonder why this is the standard. Despite all of this, flying at a height between 33,000 and 42,000 feet is actually highly beneficial, promoting fuel efficiency, hazard prevention, safety, and much more.
One of the biggest costs associated with flying an aircraft is fuel, and thus doing anything to bolster fuel efficiency is extremely useful. When traversing at a high altitude, the air around the aircraft is thin, meaning that less drag is faced during forward movement. This translates into less fuel being burned to create thrust as a lower amount of effort is required to overcome resistance. However, since engines require a high amount of oxygen for their combustion process, commercial aircraft engines take advantage of a compressor to ensure reliable power while at a high altitude.
Another major benefit of flying high is an extremely low chance of coming close to any form of traffic or hazard. While flying at a height of around 36,000 feet, aircraft can avoid a majority of birds, light aircraft, helicopters, mountain ranges, and other objects that can potentially spell disaster. To prevent commercial aircraft from coming too close to one another, flight planning is necessary so that aircraft fly at even altitudes where each is 1,000 feet above or below one another to prevent any chance of collision.
Poor weather is also something that pilots wish to avoid, especially when it can cause a loss of visuals or a rise in turbulence. A majority of weather events occur within the troposphere, and aircraft operate above this level so that they can remain clear of rain clouds, storms, and other weather phenomena. Turbulence also occurs around the level of the troposphere as well, and so pilots fly high to ensure the most comfortable flight possible where turbulence is minimized.
One of the final reasons for why aircraft fly so high is so that the pilot has ample time to carry out a safe landing in the instance of an emergency. Time is always crucial when flying, and if an emergency landing is ever necessary, each extra second is paramount so that the pilot can correct any issues and make a well-thought-out decision on how to safely bring the aircraft to a stop on the ground below. If commercial aircraft flew at a height of 10,000 feet, the window of making an emergency landing decision would be much tighter.
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