In January, 2017, seven flight attendants were taken to the hospital after a fume event on an American Airlines flight that landed in Orlando. According to news reports, that Airbus A330 had experienced two previous fume events before that.
Last week, a JetBlue plane on its way to Florida from California had to land instead in Oklahoma City due to an unknown odor that was coming from the cockpit. Ambulances met the plane and medics gave oxygen to some of the passengers who were having trouble breathing.
Stories like this grab headlines, but airline crew members have been worried about, reporting and complaining about a wide variety of health concerns – everything from light-headedness and dizziness to vomiting and memory impairment – related to contaminated air on airplanes for years.
There’s been some disagreement in the aviation community over whether or not toxic cabin air is a real problem.
According to Airlines for America (A4A), “Frequent studies over the years have consistently concluded that cabin air meets or exceeds health and safety standards, as aircraft have highly efficient environmental control systems that filter air as it is recirculated through the aircraft cabin.”
A4A also notes that “In a report that the Federal Aviation Administration provided to Congress two years ago, FAA expressly found risk of these issues to be extremely low, but confirmed that it would continue to monitor and sponsor research in this area.”
Still, a wide range of groups representing aviation workers, including the Allied Pilots Association, the International Union of Teamsters, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and others have come out in support of the Cabin Air Safety Act: legislation recently introduced (and amended to FAA reauthorization) to try to gain additional protection for crew members and airline passengers.
“When your workplace is 30,000 feet above the ground, you can’t step outside for a breath of fresh air,” said APFA president Bob Ross in a statement. “Crew members and passengers must have a clean, healthy environment during air travel – and the Cabin Air Safety Act is a major step in the right direction.”
The proposed legislation was introduced by US Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and cites academic research suggesting that in the last decade alone there have been approximately 20,000 “toxic fume events” on aircraft involving air that enters the cabin through the jet engines and then becomes contaminated with engine oil, exhaust, fuel fumes, de-icing fluids or ozone before mixing with air entering the cabin.
The act calls for:
- Mandated pilot and flight attendant training regarding toxic fumes on aircraft;
- Rules requiring the FAA to record and monitor reports of fume events through a standardized form and public database;
- Assurance that thorough investigations will occur after fume events occur; and
- The introduction of carbon monoxide sensors on aircraft set to alarm based on national air quality standards.
“Most Americans go to work with the expectation of breathing clean air, but until we achieve better standards for cabin air quality, flight attendants don’t have this guarantee,” said AFA International President Sara Nelson in a statement. “Lawmakers need to act to prevent Flight Attendants, pilots or passengers from suffering the effects of breathing toxic fumes in the cabin.”