Why This Photo of a Broken Airplane Window Isn’t As Terrifying As It Looks

Jul 23, 2018

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On his way back from a weekend trip to upstate New York, TPG managing editor Alberto Riva noticed his airplane window looked to be a bit, err — broken.

Jokingly — but we imagine also somewhat nervously — he dropped a note in our team’s Slack channel that it might be getting chilly onboard after takeoff as the cold high-altitude outside air would seep in.

Although any worries would be understandable after some recent high-profile incidents with airplane windows, they would also be unwarranted. Here’s why.

Despite its concerning appearance, this window insert, like all others on commercial aircraft, are entirely cosmetic, put in place to make windows more flush against the cabin walls while adding the shade mechanism. The United Express ERJ-145 that Alberto was on could probably go for a cabin update, sure, but it’s completely safe for flight.

Indeed, while airplane windows are made to withstand the strong differences in pressure between the air inside and outside the cabin, the window pane that you rest your head against, and can actually touch, does practically nothing besides provide a movable window shade. The green and gray seal that you see in the window pictured above, however, is extremely important to keep the pressurized cabin in, and the freezing, oyxgen-less outside air, out.

On this Boeing 777, as on all modern commercial jets, you could break the inner window panes and still be 100% safe for flight. (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)
On this Boeing 777, as on all modern commercial jets, you could break the inner window panes and still be 100% safe for flight. (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

Since the outside air pressure at cruising altitude is much lower than the air pressure inside (which is why you can’t open airplane doors mid-flight), airplane windows are under considerable strain as air on both sides presses up against them. To reduce this stress, most windows on modern aircraft are layered, split into [typically] three separate sections.

The outdoor pane and the middle one do the heavy lifting: they must balance the low-pressure outside air with the higher-pressure inside air.

To do so, they use a combination of layered plexiglass and airtight seals, and they’re all very important for safe flight. Even that little hole in the window that you’ve probably wondered about before is actually far more important than the interior pane. That tiny hole helps balance — or “equalize” — air pressure between the interior window panes and inward side of the exterior pane, effectively lessening the strain on the windows and also keeping them mostly free from fogging.

So, besides now being able to impress your friends with your cool-headedness should this happen on a future flight, what’s the moral of this story? If your window is coming off like Alberto’s was this morning, you might want to alert the cabin crew or airline as you might be entitled to some form of compensation, but you won’t need to fear for your life.

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