Pilots group warns of health risks posed by toxic fumes in cabin air

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Fumes



Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium: An international pilots’ group said Friday that airlines should monitor the level of potentially toxic fumes from the engines in their cabins.

The International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations said regulators should immediately consider the issue of cabin air quality, after several incidents were reported of crew members falling sick from fumes in recent years.

“We’d like to see some proper independent scientific research into what is clearly … a serious issue,” group spokesman Gideon Ewers said.

The London-based group — which represents more than 100,000 pilots worldwide — has instructed cockpit crews to immediately don oxygen masks whenever fumes are detected.

The problem of fumes from engine oil or hydraulic liquid seeping into cabin air has been recognized by the industry for at least 25 years since the introduction of the latest generation of civil airliners that now dominate the skies.

Although no statistical data is available, European and American regulators say they believe that hundreds of incidents involving low-level air contamination occur annually worldwide. Most of these incidents pass with no lasting effects, doctors say.

But in December an eight-person American Airlines crew was treated for dizziness and nausea after landing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In August, two Flybe cabin crew members became ill on a flight between Birmingham and Belfast from suspected toxic gas poisoning.

The pilots group said it was concerned that passengers and crew were at risk of developing chronic sickness.

Experts said there are no data to prove that toxic chemicals are present in levels high enough to be dangerous to people, though they said more study was warranted.

“We don’t have sufficient evidence to conclude that pilots or passengers are being harmed,” said Alan Boobis, a professor of biochemical pharmacology at London’s Imperial College.

A study of cabin air samplings prepared for Britain’s Department of Transportation in January found hazardous substances characteristic of hydraulic fluids and heated engine oils, according to the pilots group. It said the effects of inhaling such substances were comparable to those experienced by breathing in volatile chemicals such as fresh paint.

Scientists said exposure to some of those fumes — either in high levels or for long durations — might affect the normal functioning of the nervous system, but that such a link would be hard to prove.

“The priority should be to do more research into this and to do some on-board monitoring,” said Sarah Mackenzie Ross, a neuropsychologist at University College London.

Ross said she examined more than two dozen pilots who thought they had suffered cognitive impairment after being exposed to contaminated air. She said it was possible fumes could be hazardous to pilots and passengers, but that few preventative measures could be taken without more evidence.

“Low concentration of such contaminants generally do not have a lasting effect, although a prolonged exposure could help develop diseases such as asthma in some people,” said Dr. Roland Reynaert, a Brussels-based toxicologist. He also suggested that oil fumes, which could reduce blood oxygen levels, could affect reaction times or cause pilots to become confused.

When the world’s first jet airliners were introduced in the late 1950s, they were fitted with separate intakes for cabin air. But with the high-bypass jet engines in the 1970s, designers focused on a more efficient system that bleeds air into the cabin system from the engine itself.

Experts say this has allowed fumes from the engine’s turbine bearings ahead of the cabin air intake to get into the air conditioning system.

Aviation experts say some aircraft, such as the Boeing 757 and the BAe146 — both widely used by commercial carriers — are considered particularly susceptible to such contamination.

In recent years, airframe designers have reverted to the original separate intakes on new planes.


Stay Healthy: Avoid Contaminated Air When Traveling

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Fumes, Other Events



Have you ever come down with a cold after flying?…  If so, you’re not alone. But don’t worry: There are ways to reduce your exposure to germs and contaminated air while traveling.

In airplanes, toxic fuel fumes and recirculated air (spreading the germs from previous passengers) all contribute to a less-than-stellar air quality environment. Airplane air can also be especially toxic due to engine oil leaking into the aircraft air supply, according to Susan Michaelis, global cabin air quality executive researcher and former Australian airline pilot.

“There is … evidence showing air crew and passengers can suffer not only acute short-term effects, but some may become unwell with a range of chronic ill health effects, now being termed ‘aerotoxic syndrome’,” says Michaelis. Both frequent flyers and occasional travelers can be at risk.

Precautions you can take include:

  • If you feel ill from breathing the airplane’s air, notify the cabin crew, especially if symptoms develop pre-taxiing or take-off. Ask for assistance and also request that they record the problem for reporting/analysis purposes.
  • Use a face mask. Adding an extra filter may reduce exposure to airborne germs.
  • To avoid cold and flu bugs from other passengers, drink plenty of water and use hand sanitizer frequently. You may also find it beneficial to take an herbal supplement that purports to boost the immune system.


Plane cabin air quality comes under scrutiny

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Fumes



Paul Bibby

The air safety watchdog has set up a panel of experts to examine the quality of cabin air on Australian aircraft.

Established in response to concerns about exposure to contaminants in aircraft cabin air leading to potential long-term health effects, the nine-member team will review existing research and take public submissions on air quality on Australian planes.

Flight crews and individual passengers have reported a variety of symptoms associated with chronic exposure to contaminants, and an engineer was overcome by toxic fumes on a Qantas flight from the US last year.

Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman Peter Gibson said the body had become frustrated by the failure of overseas research in air quality to materialise and had thus decided to “do it ourselves”.

“It will review existing reports on cabin air quality, take submissions and deliver recommendations on future actions,” Mr Gibson said.

The panel consists of experts in toxicology, public health and engineering, including Chris Winder, the Professor of Applied Toxicology at the University of NSW.

It will have its first meeting later this month and deliver a final report in 2010.


In-flight toxic fume cases rise

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Fumes

Toxic fumes are increasingly being pumped into aircraft cabins during flights, putting the health of passengers and pilots at risk and raising the chances of an airline disaster.

Figures released by the Department for Transport (DfT) show that 109 flights were polluted with contaminated air in 2006 – a rise on the previous year’s total of 78. This year is on course for a record number of cases after 72 were recorded in the first six months.

But there are fears that the true figures may be higher, as crews are often reluctant to report incidents for fear of management reprisals.

Scientists estimate that 200,000 passengers a year are exposed to air contaminated with fuel vapours. Campaigners fear that such vapours could cause pilots to make deadly mistakes.

The aircraft with the worst record is the Boeing 757, the transatlantic workhorse of the industry, which suffered 43 such cases. But the BAe 146, of which fewer exist, was involved in 17 incidents, the second highest number.

Flybe airline, which flies BAe 146s from Birmingham to Belfast, has announced it is phasing out the aircraft by early next year, after a boycott by some of its crews.

Lorely Burt, the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull, said the Government and the airline industry had to take urgent action. “Pilots, cabin crews and passengers have been made ill by toxic air in cabins and that is potentially disastrous,” she said.

Fresh DfT tests on cabin air quality are expected to begin around Christmas.

A spokesman for Flybe said it was withdrawing its BAe 146s for commercial, not safety, reasons.

About 400 BAe 146s are in operation around the world. BAe said problems with fuel vapour leaks had been solved with new engine seals, fitted on 75 per cent of the fleet since 2004.


An Airplane Cain as a Test Tube for Irritants

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events

An airplane cabin is many things: lounge, snack bar, bedroom, movie theater, duty-free shop. But it is also a chemistry lab of sorts, as a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology shows.

The study, by Charles J. Weschler of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and colleagues, looked at what happens to ozone in a cabin full of passengers. Their finding is it reacts with other chemicals to form aldehydes and other potentially irritating volatile compounds. What’s more, they found, it’s the passengers that help create the problem.

As planes fly at high altitudes, the air entering the cabin contains elevated levels of ozone. Many aircraft have equipment to eliminate the ozone, but many, particularly smaller planes, do not.

The researchers simulated flights of four hours at altitude, using a rebuilt section of a Boeing 767 cabin within a climate chamber. They found that during simulated flights with 16 passengers and ozone levels similar to those encountered in real flights (on the order of 70 parts per billion), the formation of volatile byproducts, including acetone, decanal and acetic acid, increased. The ozone reacts with compounds in the seats and carpeting. But the researchers say more than half the byproducts were a result of reactions with passengers’ clothing and natural oils on their skin and in their hair.

The researchers say their findings may have implications for other indoor environments where ozone buildup can occur and where people are present to create compounds that may affect health.

Airplane Maintenance: Maybe Not a Place to Skimp

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events

HAVING been in an airplane crash, I can tell you that nothing focuses the attention quite so intensely as staring out the window and seeing that a piece of the wing is suddenly missing.

So passengers sitting in the window seats on the port side of US Airways Flight 1250 on March 22 had something compelling to ponder when a 5 by 7 foot panel ripped loose from the left wing at 27,000 feet, striking the fuselage and cracking an outer window. The accident occurred on a flight from Orlando, Fla., to Philadelphia. The 757-200 landed without injury to any of the 180 people on board.

In a preliminary report, the Federal Aviation Administration said that damage to the aircraft was “substantial.” Afterward, US Airways voluntarily inspected 17 of its 757s with similar wing designs and found problems on seven. Those planes were returned to service the next day after minor repairs.

A US Airways spokesman said the airline was cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation.

The US Airways accident got scant national notice, perhaps because much of the attention in March about the safety of older domestic aircraft was focused elsewhere.

Earlier in the month, for example, the F.A.A. said that Southwest Airlines had failed to meet an F.A.A. deadline last year to inspect its 737s for fuselage cracks and then continued to fly the planes. Southwest denied wrongdoing, but the agency has proposed a $10.2 million fine.

On March 20, United Airlines grounded seven Boeing 747s after the F.A.A. said that a maintenance subcontractor, Korean Airlines, had used a faulty instrument to check cockpit altimeters.

Last week, responding to an F.A.A. directive, American Airlines took most of its 300 aging MD-80 aircraft out of service temporarily for inspections, and a few days later Delta Air Lines sidelined its 117 MD-88 jets for the same reason. About 600 American and Delta flights were canceled as a result.

By the way, it is important to note that the United States airline industry, which carries twomillion passengers a day, has a superb safety record. Domestic airlines say they consider safety to be their first priority.

But misgivings about maintenance are growing, especially because of the widespread airline outsourcing of maintenance that used to be done in-house. And companies are increasingly concerned because they realize that they may bear legal responsibility for the safety of employees they put on airplanes, says Kevin Mitchell, who heads the Business Travel Coalition, which represents hundreds of companies that book business travel.

“If you’re a corporate travel manager and you know a certain airline is having maintenance work done at noncertificated foreign repair facilities, and if you have employees flying on that carrier, then you could have a problem,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Airlines’ use of so-called noncertificated maintenance sites around the world has grown sharply, he and other industry experts say. The sites could well be adequate, but have not yet been evaluated for F.A.A. certification.

Last June, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel, testified in Congress that the share of airline maintenance spending in outsourced domestic and foreign facilities of all types rose to 64 percent in 2006 from 37 percent in 1996.

Much of the growing concern is about the F.A.A.’s diligence in oversight of airline maintenance. The House transportation committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on subjects like the need for more F.A.A. inspectors and what the committee chairman, Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, calls the “cozy relationship between F.A.A. management and airline management.”

Mr. Mitchell’s Business Travel Coalition has also been working with the Teamsters union.

“If you talk to retired airline C.E.O.’s,” Mr. Mitchell said, “they’ll tell you that in previous cost-cutting environments through the years there was always one sacred cow: maintenance and safety. Now everything is on the table and there are no sacred cows.”

SFO to test system that checks runway traffic

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events


San Francisco International Airport, which is on a federal list of risky airports for near-collisions on runways or incidents in which pilots get confused when they’re taxiing, will participate in an experimental safety program that uses high-tech gadgetry on the airfield and in cockpits.


The Federal Aviation Administration picked SFO as one of 21 airports nationally for the pilot project, officials announced Wednesday.


Seven airlines, most of which operate at the San Francisco airport, will participate in the voluntary program.


The specially outfitted planes will be equipped with on-board, satellite-based tracking devices that will let pilots see exactly where they are on the airfield and the precise location of other aircraft and service vehicles.


The cockpit systems include moving map displays and audible alerts that will let pilots know when they are entering, crossing or departing a runway.


“This technology is on every pilot’s wish list,” said FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell. “It’s going to be a big boost for runway safety.”


Currently, pilots must rely on what they can see from the cockpit and information from air traffic controllers. Now, the control tower is equipped with radar that pinpoints the location of planes on the airfield and controllers must relay that information to pilots.


The new equipment “will add another layer of protection,” said SFO spokesman Michael McCarron.


San Francisco International Airport was tapped as a test site because it is one of the nation’s busiest commercial airports and has intersecting runways, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.


“The FAA believes that this technology could have prevented many of SFO’s past runway incursions,” meaning incidents that violate procedure and, in the worst case, could result in a collision between planes, Gregor said. It could be as minor as a plane rolling a few feet out of position while awaiting takeoff or having a service truck get too close to a plane on takeoff or landing.


There were four runway incursions at SFO in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007, including one considered serious. In that incident, on May 26, two passenger planes almost collided when an air traffic controller mistakenly cleared a jetliner for takeoff and a turboprop plane for landing on intersecting runways.


The airliners may have come within 50 feet of each other, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. No injuries were reported. After the close call, the air traffic controller was decertified, had to undergo additional training and eventually was recertified.


In part because of that incident, last year the FAA put San Francisco International Airport on a list of 20 risky airports due to runway incursions. Between 2000 and 2007, there were between two and five runway incursions each year reported at SFO. In the fiscal year that ended last month, there was a spike of 11 runway incursions, all considered minor with no potential for collisions, Gregor said.


He said new procedures were put in place to reduce the risk of airplanes crossing paths on certain runaways. For example, airplanes now taxi around the end of the runway instead of crossing the middle.


“These steps appear to have paid off. We have had zero runway incursions at SFO for the past two months, which is more typical of what we have seen historically,” Gregor said.


The onboard tracking devices will start being installed in May. Each of the participating airlines will receive between $510,000 and $600,000. Not all planes in their fleets will be equipped – 16 to 20 aircraft from each carrier will be included.


Southwest Airlines, one of the participants, was already looking at the technology, but “this pilot program gives us an opportunity to go forward,” said airline spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.


The added cost is not something financially struggling airlines could easily afford without federal aid, industry representatives said.


In addition to Southwest Airlines, the other carriers participating at SFO are US Airways, SkyWest Airlines, Piedmont Airlines and Atlas Air. In exchange for the federal funding, the airlines have agreed to provide the FAA with operational data and pilot observations to measure the effectiveness of the new technology.


SFO is the only airport in Northern California included in the test. On the West Coast, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport will participate. Among the others are Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport and JFK International Airport in New York.


FAA Convenes Joint-Effort Runway Safety Council

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events


Government, Industry Personnel Meet To Make Runways Safer

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) convened the Runway Safety Council, a joint government-industry body that will take a deeper, systemic approach to improving runway safety.


The goal of the council is to fundamentally change the existing safety culture and move toward a proactive management strategy that involves different segments of the aviation industry.


The FAA says the council will play a lead role in resolving critical surface safety issues. The participating entities will dedicate subject matter experts and analysts to a team that will examine the root causes of runway incursions. The Root Cause Analysis Team will investigate incidents from a systems perspective, getting input from airports, operators and air traffic.


One focus will be on how human factors contribute to runway incursions and what can be done to reduce human errors. The Root Cause Analysis Team will analyze and attempt to resolve issues in a positive, non-punitive environment. The team will recommend to the council ways to resolve or mitigate system risks. If the council supports the recommendations, it will work with different parts of the FAA to address what needs to be done, and track progress toward a solution of the problem.


A coordinated, systemic approach is necessary because serious runway incursions are seldom caused by a single factor. The current culture separates responsibility for incursions into different categories: operational errors by controllers, pilot deviations or vehicle or pedestrian deviations. Investigations into those incidents are conducted by different parts of the agency, depending on which category is responsible.


The council includes officials from the FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Air Transport Association, the American Association of Airport Executives, the Airports Council International, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Association of Flight Instructors, the National Business Aviation Association and the Air Taxi Association.


FAA Warns Airports About Winter Deicing Fluid Shortage

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events


Airports are facing a shortage of runway deicing fluids this winter due to a strike by a mine in Canada that produces potassium, a key ingredient in the liquid, warned FAA.


FAA first found out about the shortage for E36 deicing fluid in the summer, said Michael O’Donnell, the agency’s director of airport safety and standards. “The folks in our engineering department have regular talks with manufacturers of the deicing fluids, and were told of the shortage,” he recalled.


Cryotech Deicing Technology, a leading manufacturer of the fluid, told FAA that E36 would be “significantly limited” for the 2008-09 winter season, in a letter to aviation advocacy groups, including ATA and the American Association of Airport Executives. “CDT previously produced 9 million gallons of fluid a year,” said O’Donnell. “They will be going down to 2 million gallons, which will definitely have an impact.”


FAA is getting the word out about the shortage so that affected airports can plan ahead, said O’Donnell. “The good news is that deicing fluid is not the only thing out there that airports can use,” he said. “They can use different kinds of fluid that are glycol-based, along with dry chemicals like urea and even sand, brooms and sweepers.”


FAA Proposes Enhanced Boeing 737 Inspections

Author: Alisa Brodkowitz  |  Category: Other Events




LOS ANGELES — Federal air-safety regulators have proposed enhanced inspections on roughly 500 Boeing 737 aircraft operated by U.S. airlines, a move aimed at detecting potential manufacturing slipups that in extreme cases could result in engines separating from wings.


No crashes are believed to have been caused by such slipups. But the Federal Aviation Administration’s move is unusual because it seeks to uncover potential manufacturing problems stretching back years, and focuses on the airline industry’s most popular family of planes.


Foreign safety regulators eventually are likely to require the same inspections for hundreds of additional aircraft. That could mean that more than 1,270 Boeing 737s could be affected world-wide.


The safety mandate proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration piggybacks on earlier safety directives issued by the agency as well as plane-maker Boeing Co. But after receiving at least two reports in recent months of improperly installed engines, the agency proposed enhanced inspections of engine mounts on the four most recent versions of the workhorse twin-jet 737 planes.


If portions of engine mounts are installed backward, according to the FAA, the result can be increased structural loads on some parts and in extreme cases, “separation of the engine from the airplane.” A Boeing spokesman said Friday that the company has taken steps to prevent slipups at the factory and also has instructed operators to step up inspections of certain planes already in service. The spokesman said, “We don’t believe this to be a safety of flight issue.”


Similar safety directives issued years ago applied only to those planes on which mechanics had removed an engine after delivery from the factory. In effect, the previous FAA mandates were aimed at catching mistakes by airline mechanics — or third-party maintenance providers– who installed engines on certain 737 models.


By contrast, the FAA’s latest proposal is intended to identify and correct the same engine-mounting mistakes that originated on Boeing’s assembly line. The agency often issues its own safety mandate following service bulletins issued by Boeing, because the manufacturer’s safety warnings aren’t mandatory for airlines to follow.


The proposed inspections, slated to be completed within 90 days after release of the final directive, aren’t expected to disrupt airline schedules. If problems are found, the FAA proposal gives Boeing and airline maintenance officials flexibility in how to conduct repairs.