How to Avoid Freezing or Overheating on Planes, Trains and Buses

Photo (cc) by Marco Sky

When Eric Crusius boarded his recent American Airlines flight from Washington to Dallas, the air conditioning was powered down and the cabin started to heat up quickly, just as you might expect an aluminum tube to do under the heat of the late summer sun.

“It was pretty steamy,” he recalls.

But that was nothing compared with what happened when he landed. After the plane touched down, its air conditioning switched off again, and this time, the temperature outside was in the triple digits. Passengers waiting to exit the aircraft began to glisten with sweat.

Eventually, relief from the overheated plane came when they reached Dallas-Fort Worth’s cooler terminal, says Crusius, an attorney based in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Travel can be many things, but too often it is either too hot or too cold. And not just on an aircraft. Buses, trains and other types of mass transit often get the interior temperature wrong, either overcooling or overheating the cabin. Making matters worse, these modes of transportation generally don’t have comfort standards set by the government or operators.

Cabin comfort, and the challenges of regulating it, became an issue in Dallas this summer when an American Airlines flight attendant reportedly fainted in an overheated plane. American’s maximum “safe” temperature is 90 degrees, and the flight attendants union wants to lower that number for the sake of its members and passengers.

Generally, the older the aircraft, the more likely you’ll freeze — or bake — according to Paul Eschenfelder, a retired captain for Delta Air Lines. For example, on an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777 or 787, you can regulate the temperature almost to the seat. On older aircraft, the system is imprecise.

“If seat 37G was hot, then 12B wound up being frozen out when the temperature was reduced,” he remembers.

Modern aircraft control temperature by zone and can even be adjusted by row. Assuming, of course, that the climate controls are available. When a plane is parked at the gate, it is cooled differently in order to save fuel.

“Cold air is plumbed in from outside through ducting connected to a huge air conditioning unit mounted below the jetway,” explains Patrick Smith, author of “Cockpit Confidential.” “Usually this is adequate. If not, we will start the auxiliary turbine engine that provides air and electricity when the main engines aren’t running.”

Normally, the cabin crew knows it’s just a matter of minutes before the plane’s air conditioning systems kick in, and they’ll ask passengers to be patient. But what if you’re traveling overland and your hosts are less cooperative?

That’s the situation in which Robert Rose, a New York-based TV producer, found himself when traveling by bus from Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to Orange Walk, Belize, on a hot summer day.

“It was the temperature of a meat cooler,” recalls Rose of the five-hour journey. “I have never been so uncomfortable in my life.”

The passengers asked the driver to turn the air conditioning down, but “he cursed us and refused to do so,” Rose remembers.

Temperature problems extend to other kinds of mass transit, says Alden Cuddihey, a managing director for Accenture’s transit and tolling services division. “At the root is that when you are responsible for carrying large numbers of people, safety is first priority, followed by reliability,” he says. In other words, the historical approach has been: If you’re too cold or too hot, it doesn’t matter as much as whether the mode of transport is unsafe. Comfort has only more recently become a higher priority.

“There are currently no easy solutions to the complaints many customers are lodging,” he says.

Part of the reason is aging equipment and infrastructure. The average bus is 10 to 15 years old and most rail cars are 25 to 30, he says. Most older train stations aren’t built with adequate circulation, so during temperature extremes, they can become unbearably hot or cold.

Temperatures on mass transit aren’t regulated by the government, according to Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. “Local conditions dictate the specifications that would be created when ordering a bus or train,” she says. “The heating and air conditioning load has to be balanced with the engine’s performance.”

Bottom line: Extreme temperatures are inevitable when you travel. Jamie Michael Hemmings, who runs a publishing company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, packs for the worst. On his frequent flights to New York he brings a blanket and a jacket and never wears shorts, even in the summer. “Some flights feel like I’m in a blizzard, and if your neighbor turns on their vent, well, there goes the neighborhood,” he says.

Laura Gross, who works for a communications and event-planning company in Washington, dresses in layers when traveling. “Short sleeves or a sleeveless shirt, with a lightweight sweater that will easily scrunch up in my purse,” she says. “I always wear pants, too. If bringing a carry-on, I will bring shorts or a dress to change into once I get to my destination, if I need to. I also bring socks in my purse to put on once I’m in my seat.”

Crew members say they’ll try to make your trip as comfortable as possible. But at a time of year when outside weather can be intense, and when the aging infrastructure isn’t enough to protect you, cabin comfort is your responsibility. Bring a blanket, dress in layers and hope for the best.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at [email protected]

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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