Why Are Airplane Windows So Small?

Have you ever noticed that the inside of airplanes are HUGE but their windows are tiny? What’s up with that? Well, it turns out there are a couple of reasons…

Structural integrity

The metal that makes up the hull of a plane is made to be super strong and to withstand the changes in pressure outside when you’re going from 0 to 35,000 feet. The larger the windows on a plane, the less hull is available to keep the “outer skin” of the plane strong and resistant to these pressure changes. Granted, the windows are sealed in, but any discontinuity of the plane’s skin is going to be a weaker area. The last thing you want is for your plane to break apart in midair so they keep the windows small to maintain the maximal integrity of the “walls” of the plane.

Weight

The structures to keep the windows safely in place, on top of the window itself, are heavy. Bigger windows  + more required to keep them in place = more weight. And we all know the crazy things airlines are doing to LOWER a plane’s weight.

In the event of an emergency

In April 2018, the engine of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 failed while at 32,000 feet. The shrapnel from the engine blast shattered a window of the plane and Jennifer Riordan, a resident of Albuquerque, NM, had the window seat in that row and was partially sucked out of said window. Despite heroic efforts by the crew and several of her fellow passengers who were able to successfully pull her back in, she didn’t survive the incident. The plane made an emergency landing and everyone else on the plane lived.

  • A smaller window meant the sudden pressure changes inside the plane took longer than if it had been a larger window, which allowed passengers to have enough oxygen to survive until the plane was low enough where the outside air had enough oxygen for normal breathing (oxygen masks were also in use, but those only give a few minutes’ of oxygen).
  • It sounds morbid but a smaller window meant only one person got sucked out. A larger window would have given room for more than one person to be pulled out from the pressure.

But what about that huge window in the cockpit?

That’s different ;-).

Pilots need to see what’s happening all around them (i.e. other aircraft, obstacles, runways, weather, terrain, etc.), so their windows are as large as possible. Airlines spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these large, ultra-strong windows that are even stronger than the protective glass you see in banks. Besides being able to withstand the incredible pressure difference (and the occasional unlucky bird), aeronautical engineers have also ensured that they’re held in very versatile frames that are specifically designed to absorb and endure some of the strains of flying.

I suppose they could use the same sort of material and frame for passengers’ windows but it wouldn’t be cost-efficient.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

One thought on “Why Are Airplane Windows So Small?”

  1. Good article, but your part about smaller windows meaning it would take longer to equalize pressure is plain wrong. Despite what you see in the movies, a blown out window would allow enough air to exit in a second or two to equalize the pressure to the outside. They do have bigger windows on planes such as the 787, so a lot of the arguments beyond structural kind of fall apart.

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