The Blog

Where For Art Thou Cabin Air Quality?

Since 2007, I have had the privilege of meeting with pilots and cabin crew from all around the world, desperate to tell me of the problems with the air that we breathe on aircraft. For many decades, passengers and crew have been flying on aircraft that supplies air through its engines via the bleed-air system. It was designed as an engineering solution to the heavier system of providing our air via compressors and air ducts in the fuselage - the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner has returned to that technology, albeit updated! The air that we breathe therefore normally comes through the engine and is siphoned off into the aircraft's air conditioning system.

The problem arises normally at taxi, take-off and on the descent, though there are reports of in-flight problems.

As the air is drawn into the bleed-air & air conditioning systems, synthetic oils, used to lubricate the engine, escape from the seals in the engine which are either claimed to be faulty or not operating at their optimum level during the various stages of engine operation. The oils are in a state of pyrolysis, that is to say that they have been heated to extreme temperatures and are in the process of breaking down into their constituent chemical parts.

Once they enter into the aircraft's environment, the chemicals can exhibit themselves as an obvious smoke event but they are more likely to demonstrate as a fume event with some reporting a smell of 'dirty socks'.

Apart from engineering concerns, there is a wider anxiety as to the health effects, whether that is through a one-off exposure or through a consistent low-level exposure. There is much talk about the nature of the chemicals, with one set, TOCP's, causing most concern. These chemicals are generally considered to be neurotoxins and they can deliver serious problems to human health, such as nerve and brain damage, cognitive effects along with other physical health problems.

I have campaigned along with my aviation colleagues for Government's and National Aviation Authorities to bring about a regulatory system that either solves this engineering problem or at the very least alleviates it. I work within Standards Bodies in the EU and the United States to bring about a lasting solution; a universal standard to help resolve these issues. I have consistently called for a 'Passenger's Right to Know', not just for the Fume Event but to them to be also equipped with information so that they can manage their health post flight.

Despite all these efforts, this campaigning cohort are still waiting for that moment when the air that we breathe on-board an aircraft will be 'Regulation' safe! The Aviation Industry however continue with their mantra that the air that you breathe is of the same quality as that found in your office or within an operating theatre; it neglects to mention that the aircraft environment is unique, pressurised and not really one that should be compared to that of the average office!

Through this time I have also met some remarkable passengers; determined to understand what has happened to them - determined to get to the truth!

One such group of passengers demonstrate to me the very best of Consumer determination. In 2014, they were exposed to a horrific smoke and fume event back to the UK. Their holiday flight not only saw a denial by the flight crew that there was indeed a problem but many suffered with:

• Stinging/Watery eyes;

• Severe throat irritations;

• Bouts of coughing;

• Some passengers had to be administered with oxygen;

• Some of the crew were also affected.

When they eventually arrived back at their departure airport, some passengers did not immediately recover from their symptoms and when passengers demanded answers to their concerns, no explanations were given, but security was brought into the holding area!

I have recently spoke to some of the passengers on that flight and 2 years on, they tell me that many suffer with medical conditions, such as:

• Increased blood pressures;

• Eye irritations;

• Continual chest infections;

• Young people unable to exert themselves for longer than 60 minutes due to fatigue;

• Serious asthmatic conditions

• None of these passengers had similar health problems before this flight!

The recent BA flight that had to divert to Vancouver once again brings into sharp focus the issue of Cabin Air Quality. Having met many senior people from the Aviation Industry, I do not doubt their sincerity when they express the view that the health and safety of crew and passengers are paramount. But, everyone should recognise that passengers are indeed the oil that makes aviation work; is it not time for all parties to put aside their entrenched positions and develop solutions that work for everyone?