Chapter 17:  Air Quality and Quantity


In 1990, Transport Canada, conducted a study “to determine the extent to which poor air quality exists [in aircraft], and to what extent it would affect cabin crews’ ability to perform their safety-related duties.” The study was initiated because the Confidential Aviation Safety Reporting Program (CASRP) had received several letters from flight attendants concerned about poor cabin air quality. After Transport Canada sampled the cabin air on one type of aircraft, the ministry reported that there were “potentially significant problems.” Further tests would be conducted. But, alas, in February of 1992, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSBC) was informed that, unfortunately, studies could not be conducted as originally planned.

Instead, Transport Canada, in concert with Labour Canada, would investigate specific air quality complaints only when a reported problem could not be resolved by the air carrier, their employees, and their safety and health committee.1 And the Airline Division of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) asserted an investigation would only be launched “to confirm compliance with published air quality standards.” But these standards, protested the flight attendants union, were inadequate because limits for exposure to toxins were too high, and ventilation standards too low for an aircraft environment.2 Meanwhile, I discovered that no government air quality or quantity standards exist for cabin crew in North America— and therefore, there are no such standards for passengers either.

Because the atmosphere at 35,000 feet and minus 60 ̊ Celsius does not sustain human life, aircraft must be pressurized, supplied with artificial oxygen, and employ air ventilation and filtration systems. These systems are normally operating at approximately 6000–8000 feet above sea level, depending on aircraft type and altitude. Until the early 80s, airplane systems supplied a 100% fresh air circulation to the cabins at about three minute intervals by pumping outside air through the engines’ compressors into the aircraft and back outside through exhaust valves.3

Then the fuel crisis hit and fuel prices skyrocketed. Because compressed air diverted for ventilation was no longer necessary to provide engine thrust, and therefore engines were burning additional fuel to provide cabin air, aircraft engineers devised an air-intake system for all planes designed during and after that period, where up to 53% of cabin air passes through filters to blend with fresh outside air before it is re-injected into the cabins. This modification affected Boeing’s 757, 767, newer versions of 737s and the 747, as well as McDonnell Douglas’s MD80s and MDIIs, and the Airbus aircraft.4

The filters used to purify the air on most aircraft purportedly are capable of removing 90 to 95% of dust, bacteria, and viruses—but not gases and odors,5 Newer filters, which are presently only installed on Boeing 777s and 747-400s, are said to remove up to 99.99% of airborne contaminants 0.5 microns or larger. How often these filters are changed is unknown. Manufactures’ guidelines exist but, since the task of changing the filters is time consuming and therefore not cost-efficient, carriers appear to replace them at their convenience.6

The air provided to the cabins runs through ventilation loops called power packs. Most aircraft have two or more power packs, which can be individually turned on and adjusted by the pilots. In the aircraft, the configuration of the loop outlets depends on manufacturers’ designs. In Airbus, for example, air conditioning divisions roughly correspond to the different class compartments. This configuration, according to the company, “is not a matter of ensuring first class air for first class passengers while providing third class air to the economy class, but is rather due to the fact that seat density varies.”7

Pilots can adjust the air flow rate traveling from the power packs to the cabins. However, the cabin air circulation rate is also heavily influenced by aircraft type and speed. Because many planes slow down during longer flights to take advantage of jet streams which save fuel, cabin air intake is lower, and slower air circulation rates are the result.8 The amount of oxygen provided to cabin occupants—low, medium, or high—depends entirely on an airline’s generosity. In 1995 one carrier instructed its Airbus pilots to select HIGH only if flight attendants reported to the flight deck to complain about air deficiency9.

Boeing’s chief spokesperson, Jack Gamble, clarified the issue in 1994: “Ventilation systems are driven by air that comes off the engines. If you cut back on the engine system, cut back on the speed, and therefore burn less fuel, you’re going to cut back on the amount of air circulation in the cabin.”10 Consequently, whereas 100% fresh cabin air circulates about every three minutes through older aircraft manufactured before the 80s, newer aircraft provide half-fresh and half-recirculated air every six or seven minutes.11 Farrol S. Kahn, the founder of the Aviation Health Institute, Oxford, England, estimated the rate of air exchange to reduce the cost of cooling the air to be every twelve minutes.12

Needless to say, the less air circulation, the greater the reduction of oxygen to flight attendants and passengers.

In regulation JAR 25, the Joint European Aviation Authority requires that each crew compartment must be ventilated and have enough fresh air—no less than 10 cubic feet per minute (cfm) per crew member—to enable them to perform their duties without undue discomfort or fatigue. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on the other hand, in air worthiness regulation FAR 25.831 (November 1994) only stipulates that a minimum of 10 cfm of fresh air must be supplied to cockpit crew.13 Because of FAA regulations, pilots have completely separate ventilation systems, which administer much higher volumes of 100% fresh air than that received by cabin crew and passengers. For them, the FAA recommends the luxurious amount of 5 cfm as “a minimum comfortable level under single [power] pack operation.”14 And research has proven that when calculating fresh air-intake, recycling, air circulation, and human carbon dioxide (CO2) generation on-board, the cabin air provided inflight translates to less than 5 cfm per person.15

The Washington-based Academy of Sciences National Research Council measured less than 7 cfm in the high-density economy sections of full Boeing 747s during domestic runs. First and Business class passengers, however, received 30 to 50 cfm, and pilots inhaled the extravagant amount of about 150 cfm of 100% fresh air from their private system on the same trips. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), recommended fresh air changes of 20 cfm in enclosed spaces, though this was without specific reference to aircraft.16 So, now you know. It’s not your constitution unduly acting up when you leave the aircraft with a pounding headache and you’re pooped for days and weeks after longer or shorter flights. Those ailments are graciously extended, invisible gifts from your courteous North American airline. Count yourself blessed if exhaustion and fatigue are all you suffer.

With its recommendation for a 5 cfm oxygen supply in aircraft cabins, the FAA has officially sanctioned airlines to limit the oxygen intake to the exact point where cabin crew and their charges in the back of the bus are barely coherent and conscious. Pilots, meanwhile, are frequently remunerated by employers for fuel efficiency.17 Fresh as roses, but bored stiff during autopilot operation, they amuse themselves by calculating their financial gains derived from the sport of depriving flight attendants and customers of the air to breathe. In 1980, figures on how lucrative cabin air deprivation could be were provided by McDonnell Douglas to the major American airlines—American, Braniff, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Pan Am, Trans World, United—when the manufacturer reported that, by halving the fresh air intake and by using recycled air on its DC10s, around 62,000 gallons of fuel on that type of aircraft could be saved annually.18 The industry embraced the concept with open arms.

Obviously there are drawbacks associated with oxygen deprivation—drawbacks with severe consequences. Passengers and cabin crew turn anoxic and/or hypoxic. With anoxemia, there is an abnormal decline in the oxygen content of the blood, and passengers become combative, hostile, and aggressive. With hypoxia, there is a deficiency in the amount of blood reaching body tissues, and people become apathetic or comatose. I believe it is for that reason the FAA recently implemented a policy that, on flights of four or more hours, emergency exits and evacuation procedures must be repeated to passengers before landing.

Both hypoxia and anoxia cause irreversible damage to body tissue, including the neurological system. In other words, on-board air deficiency and the lack of air quality causes permanent brain damage. How much impairment it causes can be gauged from the fact that psychologists, who have investigated ways to enhance mental functioning, found inhaling pure oxygen for a mere sixty seconds can double the number of words individuals can remember in test situations.19 Obviously, the opposite effect takes place in aircraft cabins during flight. While most passengers will become subdued with hypoxia, there are those who, in an anoxic state, become dangerous for all those around them.

Unruly passenger behavior has reached such proportions that British airlines have urged parliamentarians to back a bill introduced in the upper house which would enable British police to prosecute travelers who attack fellow passengers (and often cabin crew) or get offensively drunk while on flights to Britain on foreign carriers. Presently, prosecutions are possible only when passengers enter the United Kingdom on a British registered airline.20

Carriers in other countries are also voicing their concern. Canadian Airlines International and Air Canada have broadened their definition of unruly passenger behavior to include sexually harassing attendants, causing disturbances, or violating anti-smoking rules. Both airlines have correlated this behavior to an increase in passenger loads over the past ten years—citing that, in most cases, alcohol is a contributing factor. As most professional flyers know, one drink at high altitudes has the impact of two or three on earth, but there is another factor that needs to be acknowledged. That factor is oxygen deprivation. Rather than exploring the possibility of increasing oxygen flow to passengers, the Canadian carriers’ response has been to permit their cabin crews to literally handcuff their hostile charges.21

Japan Airlines (JAL) has followed suit. JAL recorded forty disturbances in 1996, up from fifteen in 1995. Between January and July 1997, fifteen violent incidents were reported. Their response? A recently introduced policy allows JAL’s flight attendants to literally hog-tie passengers—and even to tape their mouths shut if they refuse to be quiet.22

American Airlines’ cabin crews’ complaints about passenger abuse rose from 30 in 1994 to almost 900 in 1995. On a non-stop flight from Paris to Miami in April 1996, one of their aircraft made an unscheduled landing in Boston, because of an on-board passenger–aircrew altercation. Two passengers were charged. The same airline sued another passenger on a Rio–US flight for misconduct based on the almost unthinkable act of defecating and urinating on a trolley.23 Of course, these charges are unjustifiable, because it appears to be the carrier’s air supply policy that caused passengers to act irrationally.

Nonetheless, sometimes charges are brought and fines are levied. For example, on a Los Angeles–New York flight, television evangelist Rev. Robert Schuller felt his needs were not being sufficiently met by flight attendants. Exploding into a rage, he violently shook a cabin crew member. The court fined him $1500, and required a courtroom apology. In another case, a flight attendant on a Paris–Boston run was choked and scratched by an out-of-control female passenger. The woman was fined $650.24

These cases, however, are the exceptions rather than the rule—most offenders are let off and court cases are all too rare. “Why is that?” one wonders. After all, when such draconian measures as gagging and hog-tying have been applied to subdue an individual, one should think the airlines would easily defend subsequent assault charges. Jerry McCann, Health and Safety chairperson of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Airline Division , asserts international judicial systems do not view unruly passenger behavior as a serious crime.25

If that’s the case, something better be done about it fast, because air rage incidents worldwide have increased 400% over the past three years. Flight attendants have been bitten, kicked, choked, scratched, slashed with broken bottles, threatened with having their hands cut-off, battered, punched, pushed, and otherwise assaulted while at work.26 Physical assaults not withstanding, they also suffer verbal abuse commonly accompanying such incidents and they sustain emotional injuries when forced to deal with violent behavior, threats, and battering in the line of duty.

British Airways, the world’s largest carrier, recorded 260 disruptive incidents in twelve months (ending April 1998). The carrier has encouraged that country’ s parliamentarians to pass a law allowing the airline to ban unruly passengers from its flights (in addition to fines in British Courts of up to £5,000 or two years imprisonment, or both) for placing an aircraft at risk.27

North American carriers appear to be in an equally encouraging mode. Cliff Mackay, the Air Transport Association of Canada’s president representing Canadian airlines stated that his association is trying to encourage the federal government to put an appropriate legal framework in place after having announced, “...whereas there are clearly defined international protocols for dealing with terrorism, there is no clearly defined convention [covering air rage],”28

Will any assistance to create such laws be forthcoming from North American flight attendants’ unions? Not if we consider a comment made in a recent press interview by Denise Hill, president of the Airline Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representing Canada’ s approximately 9000 flight attendants. ” The [air rage] situation is frightening,” she meekly squeaked.29

And really, are air rage laws a matter of some urgency? Not according to Mr. Mackay who purports, “Airlines move about one billion people a year, and such [air rage] incidents are an infinitesimally small proportion of that. At most, there are about half a dozen a year on Canadian airlines.”30 Mind you, Air Canada alone reported 41 disruptive incidents in eight months ending August 31, 1998. (The airline began tracking air rage incidents in November of 1997).31

Frankly, the industry would be entirely disinterested in air rage altercations, were it not for the fact that unscheduled or emergency landings often associated with such incidents reflect negatively on shareholders profits. Air rage incidents are not cost-efficient. Lobbying for laws protecting flight attendants from violent passenger outbursts is really not conducive to the bottom line. However, air crew and the flying public ought to be grateful that airlines are encouraging governments to take steps to punish on-board offenders. If such laws are passed, flyers in whatever capacity can rest more assuredly that neither their travel nor their off-duty plans will be unduly disrupted by delays incurred due to unforeseen violent human interactions in the sky.

Airlines’ steadfastly blame their non-smoking policy and passengers’ excessive alcohol consumption for the increase in irrational and violent on-board behavior.32 This is, however, most peculiar. It is particularly puzzling when we all know that smoking on aircraft has been banned on most carriers worldwide for at least the past five years and that, for many customers, drinking has always been a favorite preoccupation when journeying in the twilight zone. In past decades, drinking and smoking has rarely resulted in violent and irrational passenger outbursts.

This, then, begs the question: Has the public’s psychological makeup changed so dramatically over the last three years as to provoke a 400% increase in irrational, violent and erratic behavior manifesting itself on-board aircraft? (Comparative studies are unavailable) Or is the air rage problem more insidious?

Ask yourself these questions. Is it possible that carriers know mid-air altercations blossom under deplorable air quantity and quality conditions and are unwilling to alter the inflight environment? Have they accepted the likelihood that under these conditions some individuals will slowly and surely lose it (especially when under the influence of alcohol)? How high is the probability that, given sufficient knowledge of the effects of oxygen deprivation, some of those passengers will sue, and the courts will find the airlines culpable? Are legislators on the side of the airlines? Has the airline industry shifted the responsibility and consequences of selected oxygen deprivation to passengers and cabin crews? The answers seem inexorably obvious.

For passengers, the impact of oxygen deficiency might not be of great significance because they are not exposed to this condition regularly. For flight attendants, however, who annually spend between 900 to a 1000 hours in an oxygen-deficient and polluted work environment for a period of years, the repercussions could be devastating. Whereas passengers can sue an airline for damaging their health—if they can prove it—flight attendants cannot. They cannot complain either, since labor laws across the land stipulate an employee can refuse to work in hazardous conditions, but also that the employer can fire the employee refusing to labor under those conditions if the conditions arise “from a situation where the risk is inherent in the employee’s work or is a normal condition of work.”33

Air carriers will do nothing to improve the inflight cabin air quality and quantity situation, unless passengers volunteer to pay higher ticket prices. Thus far, the issue has not arisen simply because customers are unaware of on-board oxygen deprivation and, when they are told, the paying public refuses to believe that North American airlines starve them of the air to breathe. But it’s a fact. Dr. Andrew Horne of the FAA’s Office of Aviation Medicine, acknowledged this fact in June 1993, when he so succinctly stated, “It’s a trade off. If you want to spend more money for fuel, then you get more outside air.”34

In other words, if passengers agree to share the cost of fuel—in effect paying an “oxygen tax”—then carriers might consider allowing their pilots to increase oxygen flow rates. But don’t bet on it, since air deprivation is such a simple and foolproof way to magnificently enhance the airlines’ bottom line. Presently, it appears all possibilities for milking hidden profits from the aircraft oxygen supply and circulation system have been exploited—after all, some cabin ventilation has to occur.

This has never been demonstrated better than in April 1995 when South African Airways, cruising the skies en route to Johannesburg with 300 passengers and seventy-two flatulent pigs aboard a Boeing 747, was forced to return to London, England and make an emergency landing.35 Livestock was carried in passenger compartments in the rear of this Combi aircraft. The little Babes had farted, urinated, and defecated with such jubilant efficiency they rendered the aircraft ventilation system unserviceable. The collective odor and body heat activated the aircraft cargo’s halon fire extinguishers. Though the crew had access to the livestock compartments and knew that they did not have an on-board fire, fifteen prize stud boars were asphyxiated. To my knowledge, discomfort for cabin crew and passengers on this flight has never been reported.

What happens to pigs will happen to humans if insufficient cabin ventilation takes place. People in the back of the plane will succumb to carbon dioxide (CO2) poisoning, just one of the inflight contaminants greatly influencing flight attendants’ and passengers’ health and well-being on-board aircraft. Too many people and too little air lead to an excess of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, a colorless and odorless gas, is a central nervous system depressant which slows responses and reduces alertness. Elevated CO2 levels can cause feelings of stuffiness, drowsiness or claustrophobia and, with higher levels, lead to headache and depression. At extremely high levels, CO2 results in loss of consciousness and death.36

In a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, eighty-seven out of ninety-two flights showed carbon dioxide levels consistently jumping the acceptable boundaries of 1000 parts per million (ppm) set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE),which considers air quality an indicator of indoor air quality. However, some researchers argue levels may need to be kept below 600 ppm to minimize sleepiness, fatigue, poor concentration, and stuffiness.37

In 1993, when Airbus and Air Canada jointly conducted a carbon dioxide study on Airbus’ 320, carbon dioxide levels of 800 to 2300 ppm were measured front to back in the cabin areas, to reach the dazzling height of between 5200 and 9000 ppm in the aft galley,38 Despite such findings, which are probably not unique in the industry, the FAA proposes a ceiling of 5000 ppm, since the airlines maintain “average CO2 levels were below the federal occupational standard, which requires that workers, on earth, be exposed to an average of no more than 5000 ppm over the course of a work week.”39 That means 1000 ppm per work day for earth-bound employees. For flight attendants, it means up to 9000 ppm for up to seventeen or more hours in one setting.

The 747s, L-1011s and 767s inaugurated the airlines’ cost-efficient trend of passenger and cabin crew oxygen deprivation. They let the paying and working people deal with the fluctuating carbon dioxide level increases, depending on where they work or slumber, McDonnell Douglas’ MD80 series, the newest addition of environmentally “sick” planes, appears to be an exceptional wonder bred to industry’s money making adventures.

After hundreds of Alaska Air cabin personnel bitterly complained about the on-board breathing conditions, the US National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety finally consented to study the inflight air quality in February 1992. Carbon dioxide levels of 4882 ppm were found, but the data was declared invalid and the causes of flight attendants’ complaints that CO2 exposure was responsible for their light-headedness, dizziness, headaches and nausea were deemed “undetermined.” Thus the underlying theme of the study trivialized the complaints and insinuated it was all in cabin crews’ airy, feeble little heads.40

What about passengers, one might ask? An Airbus spokesperson pipes up, “Whatever the passenger wants, he gets—sooner or later, [and] stale air, at least, has offered no cause for passenger complaint for a long time.”41 That, of course, is purely due to the fact that the human psyche refuses to fathom that airlines knowingly and willfully expose both their customers and flight attendants to such unconscionable mid-air conditions.

Ozone is another commodity to be reckoned with on aircraft inflight. Since cabin ventilation derives from the compression section of the plane’s engines, in which the air is raised to extremely high temperatures, the ozone molecules would normally decompose. Depending on the aircraft type, however, the length of time the air remains at such high temperatures is usually too short to complete the ozone decomposition process, and a relatively high concentration finds its way into aircraft cabins.42

To my knowledge, the only ozone study publicly available was conducted on the March 24–25th, 1977 Toronto–Amsterdam DC10-30 KLM Royal Dutch Airline flight. Researchers measured cabin air ozone levels during the journey and the readings revealed 70% of the ambient ozone concentration entered the cabin through the ventilation system, and about 50% of this concentration hovered around 1.20m ( or approximately four feet) above the cabin floor. For about half of the total flying time, the ozone level exceeded 200 parts per billion (ppb) by volume, with peak concentrations of about 600 ppb. Levels of 80–100 ppb are acceptable in most International Aviation Transportation Association (IATA) countries. Whereas the ozone levels on the KLM flight might be considered unfavorable, the researchers asserted that concentrations on other routes, particularly routes across the North Pole during spring and autumn, are probably even higher.43

Research into the ozone levels was conducted in cooperation with KLM’s Medical Department. Both KLM and the researchers asked the aviation industry to heed warnings of high ozone levels, and to demand aircraft manufacturers construct ventilation systems which could ensure the cabin air ozone concentration would not exceed levels of between 80–100 ppb. Furthermore, air carriers were asked to use aircrew medical files to obtain a deeper insight into the effects of ozone on health.44 Nothing has been heard on the topic since. What is certain is the perpetual depletion of the earth’s ozone layer, and the extended exposure to dangerous levels of ozone concentrations within aircraft inflight, affects the health of the sky’s workers. Like coal miners toiling miles below the earth, flight attendants, toiling miles above it, not only depend on the integrity of an artificial air supply system, they have a right to it!

Carbon monoxide and radiation levels are also considered substantial health risks when circumventing the globe in a sardine can. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, is a by-product of incomplete combustion. It is present in high concentrations in the exhaust gas of reciprocating engines, and is absorbed exclusively through the lungs. Hemoglobin, the component of blood that carries oxygen, absorbs carbon monoxide 210 times more readily than oxygen. Carbon monoxide in the blood can cause severe hypoxia. Symptoms are fatigue, nausea, disorientation, irritability, poor motor skills, reduced peripheral vision, and erratic decision making. Death occurs at 60 per cent blood saturation, but levels between 30% to 50% can also be fatal.45

Add to that a few loads of plutonium and radioactive material, which is regularly shipped in cargo worldwide, and it doesn’t seem far fetched that flight attendants themselves believe they receive radiation doses equivalent to one x-ray on every long haul. Of course, no empirical evidence has been gathered on human exposure to these invisible and silent threats, and governmental agencies consistently refuse to take regulatory action concerning on-board aircraft radiation, ozone, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide issues.46 And why should they, when it is hard for the average layperson to understand, let alone to prove, the presence of these dangerous substances?

When bells and whistles go off in the flight deck due to carbon dioxide-activated fire extinguishers, as in the KLM swine affair, we know something is amiss. But to gather evidence that nausea, eye and nose irritation, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sudden fatigue, ringing in ears, loss of equilibrium, sinus pain, heart palpitations, blurred vision, dizziness, prolonged nose congestion, nose bleeds and emotional irritability are directly related to quantity and quality of air within the aircraft is not easy. Proving the circulation rate of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide—both microbiological aerosols—and the ozone-laden cabin air is the cause for such impairments and overall discomfort is another problem. But Transport Canada’s Consolidated Regulation, Aviation Occupational Health and Safety Department, after giving it sincere thought, provided the following guidelines on how to accomplish the task:

Where there is a likelihood that the safety or health of an employee on an aircraft is or may be endangered by exposure to a hazardous substance, the employer shall, without delay, appoint a qualified person to carry out the investigation and notify the safety and health committee or the safety and health representative, if either exists, of the proposed investigation and of the name of the qualified person appointed to carry out that investigation and the following criteria shall be taken into consideration: the chemical, biological and physical properties of the hazardous substance; the routes of exposure to the hazardous substance; the effects on health and safety of the hazardous substance; the state, concentration and quantity of the hazardous substance handled; the manner in which the hazardous substance is handled; the contra methods used to eliminate or reduce exposure; and the value, percentage or level of the hazardous substance to which an employee is likely to be exposed.47

Now let’s analyze this piece of prose in detail by applying it to a hypothetical situation. We are onboard aircraft flying at between 35,000 and 42,000 feet, most likely the higher altitude since it is cheaper. Flight attendants have reached the suffering stage. Most passengers are blessedly comatose. The anoxics have been handcuffed. Then the smoker on the crew, deprived of the habit in the air, but used to oxygen deprivation and therefore more coherent than the rest,48 says “I’ve had it. Let’s test the air.” The pilots, after much argument with the flight attendant, establish satellite communication with company management, and permission to proceed with the air testing procedure is reluctantly granted. Then the flight attendant notifies the union’s health and safety representative, who happens to be vacationing in Timbuktu. In our wondrous world of technology, this minor inconvenience is successfully overcome with a satellite link. Thereafter, our dedicated crew member hunts for, and finds, a qualified person, a biochemist or the like, among the vaguely alert, who is willing to conduct the analysis. Then the crew member searches and finds a container, and catches some cabin air. After it has been analyzed for its chemical, biological, and physical properties, and after having reported the data to the health and safety representative by satellite communication, the crew member transcribes the required report as it is dictated by the scientist—while both combat hypoxia.

But the story doesn’t end there. After the eagle has landed, the container with the offensive and hazardous substance, together with the report, are presented to the appropriate government authorities and airline management waiting on the loading bridge. Both are gleeful, knowing there is absolutely nothing in the container to prove that toxins contaminated the aircraft cabin air. All that remains is the kerosene-loaded tarmac air.

It is this impossibility to transport inflight air from planes to the ground which enables airlines to provide seriously substandard air to flight attendants and the traveling public, and the record proves that neither the FAA nor Transport Canada intend to change this. Officially, the FAA has conducted only one air quality–quantity study, and the aviation regulation directorate of Transport Canada intends to implement a policy of carrier self- policing because, they claim, “resource constraints that are being exacerbated by the effects of inflation” have kept the government from legislating and enforcing laws governing air quality and quantity.49

Even if an inspection were scheduled by either of those agencies to monitor the breathing comfort of creatures traveling in the back of the plane, carriers would receive ample notice to enable them to instruct pilots to run all power packs on full capacity and to fly at increased speed. Airflow would circulate at the highest velocity, and create as delightful an air quality as the top of Whistler mountain on a sunny April morning. Afterward, the glowing report issued by the appointed government official would prove flight attendants’ health concerns are trivial, caused by an innate impairment of their minds. Because passengers are largely ignorant about the symptoms of air deprivation and unlikely to demand such testing, the issue would not arise from that quarter and the airline would be safe from another inspection for the next twenty years. The carrier’s profit bonanza would continue undisturbed.

To imagine an employer is starving his employees of the air to breathe, and that co- workers participate in this duplicity, appears too irrational, illogical, ludicrous and quixotic for anyone to harbor. It is, therefore, not surprising that the FAA admits to only receiving about sixteen complaints annually on health issues related to air travel. Equally unsurprising is the April, 1994 statement by Robert Greenslade, spokesperson for the National Transportation Agency, confirming written complaints concerning health were “few and far between,” and were all related to smoking.50 Mr. Greenslade failed to acknowledge that the measurement of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) in aircraft cabins is not high enough to result in the kinds of health complaints most frequently made by flight attendants. Such symptoms are much more likely to result from elevated ozone levels, abnormally low relative humidity, and possibly due to factors such as kerosene, fuel vapors, aldehydes, or polynuclear aromatics, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.51

Therefore, if you thought you had to abstain from smoking because of carriers’ benevolent concern for your health, and because flight attendants complained bitterly about the threat to their precious constitution because you puffed away with a vengeance, think again. First of all, cabin crew, rather than the carrier, could be blamed for the no smoking policy when you grumbled about being forced to skip the habit while on-board. Second, the employer—for once listening to staff demands—could rationalize hiking their profit margin to wondrous levels, since ceasing smoke production allowed them to decrease the oxygen supply to a preposterous amount hitherto imagined only in their most joyous dreams.

The airlines, recently settled a $5 billion class action suit based on the effects of second- hand smoke and filed by 60,000 current and former American flight attendants, most of whom suffering from respiratory problems or lung cancer. The case went to trial in Miami in 1997,52 and was settled out of court for $300 million payable over three years.53 Peanuts!—when we consider what consequences a thorough investigation of mid-air quality and quantity, and their attendant physical and psychological effects on humans, would have for the industry.

Joseph Hopkins of United Airlines asserted, just as had Greenslade, that a “statistically insignificant” number of its 430 million passengers filed formal complaints in June 1993. And USAir’s David Shipley happily joined the chorus: “We have worked with the FAA over the years to improve air cabin quality, and do not think we have any problems specific to USAir or the type of aircraft we fly.”54 He got that right. The problem is generic for all North American carriers. And one of them, Air Canada, reported on-board medical incidents skyrocketed from a meager 221 in 1982, to 784 in 1992, (down from a whopping 924 in 1984 and 929 in 1988).55 These figures exclude flight attendants and the two to eleven annual inflight deaths. Knowing that it takes one very ill passenger before cabin crew will fill out a time-consuming report, the numbers give pause to wonder. Overall airline load figures—the numbers of passengers carried—are not mentioned in relation to the on-board medical incident reports, but it can reasonably be assumed they have not increased by over 350% during the past ten years.

Without doubt, these numbers are similar to those experienced by all other North American carriers, and I believe their increase is directly attributable to the on-board environment. But neither the FAA nor the Air Transportation Association (ATA), which represents the major airlines, compile data on passenger complaints related to air quality and quantity in aircraft cabins.56 Moreover, the vast majority of passengers never consider dismal on-board air conditions are the culprit for their inflight and post-flight ailments.

Air Canada’s spokesperson, Ronald White, and American Airline’s medical director, Jeffrey R. Davis, both jubilantly proclaim, that the air is generally better on an inflight aircraft than in North American office buildings.57 Such a comforting thought when stuck at 40,000 feet in an aluminum tube for a ten to seventeen hour flight with a population density that makes high-rises look like a supermarket crowd at midnight. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the peculiar ill-health symptoms office workers complain about are remarkably similar to those experienced by flight attendants and passengers. Recent studies have shown office staff’s impairments are frequently attributable to insufficient air changes in the buildings, insufficient makeup air from the outside, and poorly maintained filtration and humidification systems.58

“But what happens to flight attendants? They are up there so often,” you might wonder. Save your breath. The airlines don’t worry about them, so why should you? “The pilots?” you ask. Oh, don’t worry about them, either. Except if you’re concerned about their consciences. As you know, they have their own, separately oxygen-drenched kennel and most of them could care less about passengers and flight attendants’ well-being. It must, in all fairness, be acknowledged that, even if a captain were to be moved with such compassion for the oxygen-deprived creatures in third class and turned on all power packs to HIGH, it would be feeble-minded of him or her. Not only would this act of humanity cost the bonus, he or she would be hauled in front of superiors at such lightning speed, one would only see a shadow flying by.

In our society, it is a criminal offense to willfully and knowingly endanger another person’s life and health. It is a law ignominiously and routinely ignored by carriers and cockpit crews alike. To the cockpit crew, the word AIR is like a red flag to a bull. Even at happy hour, when the word is mentioned, they squirm like worms in grass on a warm rainy day, and no information about air quality or quantity can be pried out of them. If cabin crew complain mid-air to the pilots about feeling ill, the pilots respond by quickly narrowing the reasons for flight attendants’ discomfort down to a short, but snappy list, a litany they often repeat: it’s our vivid imaginations, our menstrual flow, menopause, party habits, marital or love problems, female hypersensitivity, briefly flying through ozone layers, the onset of food poisoning, the flu, and everything else imaginable—except the lack of oxygen and massive air pollution in the cabins.

When I broached the topic with an Airbus 320 captain hanging out in my gym, he arrogantly quipped, “Well, we need more air than you guys, ‘cause we gotta think, you know,” and then launched into a complaint about having made four trips after a six-week vacation resulting in his suffering a 40% performance deficiency. I refrained from inquiring what kind of performance he referred to, but wondered what a cabin crews’ deficiency level would be after just one trip. But, I thought at the time, better not find out. Denial is still the best armor.

When the Airline Division of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) surveyed 291 flight attendants—a ridiculously low proportion of the approximately 9000 employed by Canadian carriers—they found 70%, of participants complained about problems associated with cabin air quality. In January 1994, the union submitted “summary results” of this survey to the then Minister of Transport, Doug Young.59 It barely received a shrug of his shoulders, and the Air Transport Association of Canada, representing the industry, rejected it with a snide though courteous, “Pure garbage.”60

When Mr. Sinclair from the industry association was approached by the press about the union’s assertions that the air quality problems were caused partly by aircraft flying at higher altitudes and partly by pilots turning off the air circulation equipment to save fuel costs, he enthusiastically countered: “Turning off the air circulation equipment would result in “negligible savings.” He supported this statement by adding Canadian Transport Department officials dropped plans for an air quality study in 1992 after the industry referred them to several exhaustive US studies that purportedly found no such problems. (In fact, I discovered no published studies, other than those mentioned in this chapter.) Then Mr. Sinclair asserted without malice and apparently without forethought, that flight attendants suffered from jet lag due to changes in their eating, drinking and sleeping habits, and not because of the quantity and quality of air on-board aircraft. He finished with aplomb, “Sometimes you come to work and you don’t feel that great!”61 Once again, people like Sinclair weren’t listening or chose not to listen to flight attendants such as Fidel Gonzales, from United Airlines, who publicly contended cabin crew are so affected by on-board air quality and quantity that “Some have been so sick they could not take the next flight.”62

An investigative study on hygienic conditions for crew and passengers aboard Boeing 737s, 757s, 767s and McDonnell Douglas MD82 aircraft conducted by the Chinese Institute of Civil Aeromedicine in Beijing demonstrated there is absolutely no physical rationalization for our despicable working conditions, or for passengers who are paying to suffer. The Chinese researchers found the fleet had average on-board temperatures of 22.7 ̊ Celsius with a relative humidity of 28.1%. Contrast this with the average humidity on-board North American carriers which hovers between zero and 11% even though ASHRAE recommends 25–60%. In the Chinese study, carbon dioxide levels were 1326 mg/m 3, or approximately 400 ppm, and lower on the flight deck. You will recall, of course, the FAA proposed a ceiling of 5000 ppm.63

These results prove it is not the aircraft which cannot supply adequate air quality, quantity, and humidity to provide for a healthy work environment for flight attendants. It is only airlines motivated by their greed for profits that prevent it.

In January 1997, the Aerospace Medical Association begs to differ with such an assertion, stating fair and square that the “so-called” cabin air problem was most likely related to “hypoxia, decreased barometric pressure, crowding, inactivity, temperature control, jet lag, noise, three dimensional motion, fear, stress, individual health, alcohol, etc.” That symptoms such as headaches, light headedness, fatigue, etc. were nonspecific, purportedly further complicates the situation. All possible causes needed to be looked at before discarding any, the writer soothingly assures.64 That’s comforting to know, because it might mean that passengers’ and cabin crews’ inflight health problems are, perhaps, unrelated to their individual psychological instability and fragile physical condition, as is presently being asserted.

While industry looks at all possible causes (which will take them eons), it might be a good idea for flight attendants to intermittently and throughout every single flight, don oxygen masks and tanks for breathing comfort, using the on-board equipment which, according to government regulations, has to be refilled and the masks sterilized when partially depleted. By doing so, cabin crew would not only protect their own health but, by raising customers’ awareness about the abysmal cabin air, provide an immense service to the flying public. Such modus operandi should entice North American carriers to increase cabin air quantity, if not quality, with lightning speed.

But there is an even better solution. Legislate and implement government regulations for aircraft monitoring devices to provide readings on oxygen content, ozone levels, levels of microbiological aerosols, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and radiation levels, as well as cabin temperature and humidity. The monitors must be installed on all commercial aircraft and sealed so as not be tampered with. Such devices already exist and are widely used in galleries, museums and other environmentally sensitive industries. This technology is not particularly expensive and, at the very least, the monitors would be a cheap way to ascertain that flight attendants and passengers are at least alert if the unthinkable should happen.

To accuse carriers of knowingly and willfully endangering customers and flight attendants’ health and well-being by consistently denying them sufficient quantities of oxygen might seem preposterous. But it has a long history. The air-deprivation bonanza actually began with the DC8s in the 1960s and 70s, when usually only two of the three power packs were turned on. With the introduction of Boeing’s 747-200s in the early 70s, the airline industry turned a blind eye to a corresponding era of passenger and cabin crew complaints about chest pains, breathing difficulties, eye irritation, and coughing spells. With the inauguration of Lockheed’s 1011-100, the elderly and frail fell ill by the dozens during long hauls. Upon the introduction of Boeing’s 767, the fit and healthy joined the ranks of the habitually ill airline passenger, whereas the older and feeble sat almost comatose.

Nowadays, the art of air quality and quantity manipulation is so sophisticated as to graciously allow customers enough oxygen, for a couple of hours after takeoff at most, to enable them to maneuver their cutlery, and find their mouths during supper. After they are watered and fed, they are put gently to rest by cutting down the oxygen. Roughly one hour prior to landing—one and a half if they’re lucky—the re-activation process commences with a few vigorous blasts of air to enable everyone to walk, instead of crawl or be wheelchaired off board. It all makes marvelous sense, since the trip is energy efficient for all. Passengers’ breathing slows down considerably when comatose, thus, air intake and carbon dioxide output is reduced. The air overflow is breathed by flight attendants, thus enhancing chances to maintain some mental coherence and physical mobility. And carriers increase their profits without being forced to hike ticket prices in the cutthroat marketplace. Yes, it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.


* * *

Chapter Seventeen Notes


1 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. “Insight: Fresh Air.” In: Aviation Safety Reflexions. Issue No. 2. June 1993.

2 Airline Division of CUPE: November 14, 1994.

3 “What’s Happened to Airplane Air?” In: Consumer Reports, A publication of Consumers Union. Yonkers, N.Y. August 1994; and the International Herald Tribune, June 7, 1993.

4 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

5 “What’s Happened to Airplane Air?” In: Consumer Reports, A publication of Consumers Union. Yonkers, N.Y. August 1994.

6 American Broadcasting Company. 20/20, May 13, 1994; and the New York Times, June 6, 1993.

7 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

8 The New York Times, Sunday, June 6, 1993.

9 Air Canada. Chapter 66. FLTOP OPERATION page 61: A320 Tech Bulletin Paragraph 271; A320 Bulletin No. 271 (94-09-29); SUBJ: A320 Air Quality.

10 International Herald Tribune; co-published with The New York Times and The Washington Post, June 7, 1993.

11The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, April 20, 1994; and the International Herald Tribune; co-published with The New York Times and The Washington Post, June 7, 1993.

12 The New York Times, Sunday June 4, 1993.

13 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992; and Federal Aviation Regulation 25.831; issued November 28/1994; emphasis mine.

14 “What’s Happened to Airplane Air?” In: Consumer Reports, A publication of Consumers Union. Yonkers, N.Y. August 1994.

15 J. Ernsting. “Mild Hypoxia and the Use of Oxygen in Flight.” In: Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. May 1984.

16 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 The Weekend Sun, Saturday Review, Vancouver, British Columbia, June 15, 1996.

20 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 1, 1996.

21 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, August 29, 1997.

22 Ibid.

23 American Broadcasting Corporation. 20/20, September 6, 1996.

24 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, August 29, 1997.

25 Ibid.

26 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, November 14, 1998; and National Post, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 1998.

27 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, November 14, 1998.

28 National Post, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 1998.

29 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, November 14, 1998.

30 National Post, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 1998.

31 Ibid.

32 National Post, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 1998.

33 M. Nelson et al. “The Labor Union’s Perspective on Occupational Health.” In: Environmental and Occupational Medicine 79. 1st ed. Boston: Little Brown. c.1983; and the Canada Labour Code: Section 122.(1) to 129.(2) and Canada Labour Code Part II.

34 The New York Times, June 6, 1993.

35 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 7, 1995.

36 Shared Vision, Issue 120, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. August 1998.

37 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

38 Airbus/Air Canada study on onboard CO2 levels, 1992.

39 “What’s Happened to Airplane Air?” In: Consumer Reports, A publication of Consumers Union. Yonkers, N.Y. August 1994.

40 The New York Times, June 6, 1993.

41 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

42 S. van Heusden, and L.G.J. Mans. “Alternating Measurement of Ambient and Cabin Ozone Concentrations in Commercial Aircraft.” In: Aviation. Space, and Environmental Medicine, September 1978.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Aviation Safety Reflexions, December 1993.

46 “Smokescreen Over Cabin Air Quality.” In: Interavia, A Jane’s Information Group Publication, Volume 47, June 1992.

47 Transport Canada. Consolidated Regulation: Aviation Occupational Safety and Health, Division I: General Hazard Investigation. May 1994.

48 I. Yoneda and Y. Watanabe. “Comparison of Altitude Tolerance and Hypoxia Symptoms Between Nonsmokers and Habitual Smokers.” In: Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. September 1997.

49 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Aviation Safety Reflexions. Issue 1, March 1993; and G. Johnson. “Circling the Wagons.” In: Aviation & Aerospace, October 1990.

50 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, April 20, 1994.

51 W.A. Crawford and L.C. Holcomb. “Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) in Airliners—A Health Hazard Evaluation.” In: Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. pp. 580–586. June 1991.

52 The Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, July 15, 1997.

53 CTV News, October 10, 1997.

54 The New York Times, June 6, 1993.

55 “On-Board Medical Incidents.” In: Air Canada. FAT-13/AUG 05/93.

56 The New York Times, June 6, 1993.

57 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, April 20, 1994; and The New York Times, June 6, 1993.

58 The Olympian, Olympia, Washington, April 30, 1995.

59 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, February 2, 1994.

60 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, April 20, 1994.

61 The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, February 2, 1994.

62 The International Herald Tribune, June 7, 1993.

63 L. Li et al. “Hygienic Investigation Of Cabin On Passenger Aircraft In China.” Unpublished paper presented at an air quality/quantity symposium in California in the Spring of 1995. by researchers from the Institute of Civil Aeromedicine. Beijing, China.

64 C.Thibeault. “Cabin Air Quality.” In: Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. January 1997.



Broken Wings: A Flight Attendant’s Journey

Copyright ©1997 Nattanya H. Andersen

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