The misuse of in-flight emergency oxygen masks and how to avoid it

While the Federal Aviation Administration investigates the cause of the Southwest Airlines accident on Tuesday, another factor gaining greater scrutiny is passenger use of emergency oxygen masks. 

Pictures on social media from inside the plane’s cabin speak to panic 35,000 feet in the sky. Tuesday many Southwest Airlines passengers were seen holding emergency oxygen masks over their mouth – but not their nose.

“If you’re a nose breather you’re not going to get any oxygen,” said Captain Dick Deeds.

A retired commercial airline pilot with 30,000 hours in the cockpit, he says, sometimes, flight attendants rush through instructions while passengers are distracted by gadgets or magazines.

“I think it should be emphasized: put it over your nose and mouth and pull that cord down. Otherwise you get no oxygen,” said Deeds.

The oxygen masks are designed to deploy in case of a dramatic cabin pressure change – such as when a window shatters. At altitudes above 10,000 feet, the air is too thin to breath, and the masks make up for the lack of oxygen.

“They provide oxygen to supplement to what you have to be able to breathe easier and survive. And, as you know, if there’s not enough oxygen coming to you, your brain is going to die,” said Dr. Fred Barez, chairman of San Jose State University’s Aviation Department.

He says many of the affected passengers were not using the masks correctly, which is like not having a mask at all.

“It’s a big deal because the mask is supposed to cover your nose as well as your mouth because through a breathing cycle you inhale, you exhale,” said Dr. Barez.

Experts say they expect the industry to police itself and stress the importance of not only grabbing the mask, but using it the right way. 

Captain Deeds expects a memo to be sent to all airlines about this. He added that pilots already train two times a year for catastrophic cabin pressure loss and how to quickly get the plane below 10,000 feet so passengers can breathe without the use of the masks.