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Congress Takes on “Plane Sickness” and Cabin Fumes

Congress Takes on “Plane Sickness” and Cabin Fumes
Joe Cortez

Could a House Bill clear the air on commercial aircraft? The Cabin Air Safety Act wants to improve safety by starting with air quality. Introduced in Spring 2019, the bill sets standards for airlines to report cabin smoke and fume issues, investigate their causes and improve air monitoring equipment.

A bill heading through Capitol Hill aims to improve air quality aboard commercial aircraft and force airlines to report smoke or fume episodes. Titled the Cabin Air Safety Act of 2019, the proposed law seeks to create a new safety standard for commercial airlines.

Introduced by California representative John Garamendi (D), the bill has 28 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. The action focuses on three main concerns: training cabin staff on responding to smoke or fume incidents aboard aircraft, investigating smoke or fume incidents and improving aircraft air quality monitoring equipment.

What’s the Matter With the Air on Planes?

If you follow aviation news, you’ve no doubt seen dozens of articles about fumes on planes that diverted flights and made passengers and crew members sick. In the last 30-days, Paddle Your Kanoo reports, “there have been at least 19 reported cases in which potentially toxic fumes have leaked into aircraft cabins and flight decks around the world.  In the latest incident involving Spanish low-cost airline Vueling, passengers were evacuated onto the runway via emergency slides at Barcelona El Prat airport after thick smoke filled the cabin of their Airbus A320 aircraft on Sunday night.”

Flight attendants have long complained about bleed air systems commonly found in aircraft, claiming that fumes from the engine can create a toxic environment. In 2015, a group of flight attendants sued Boeing on claims they knew about the hazards of the air systems. In that claim, they cited a 2013 incident in which a flight was diverted to Chicago because flight attendants began passing out and vomiting due to cabin fumes. In 2019, the family of a deceased British Airways pilot sued the carrier on accusations that toxic fumes from aircraft engines contributed to his demise.

Whether frequent or infrequent fliers should be concerned about the serious effects of cabin fumes on planes is still up for debate. A 2017 study by Stirling University researchers created the term Aerotoxic Syndrome, informally known as “plane sickness.” It covers the short-and long-term health effects caused by breathing cabin fumes that contain “atomized engine oils or other chemicals.” However, aerotoxic syndrome is not currently a recognized illness.

What Will This Bill Do?

If the bill moves to the White House, aviation professionals would receive new training on responding to smoke or fume incidents on aircraft. The training isn’t limited to flights attendants and pilots: Aircraft maintenance technicians, airport first responders and emergency response teams would all receive training every year on sources of smoke or fumes, how it could harm people and how to best respond. This monitoring may provide the information needed to determine just how dangerous cabin fumes are.

Aiding the training would be the mandatory installation of carbon monoxide detectors on commercial aircraft. The alert systems would be placed in the air supply system to constantly check the air quality and inform pilots of carbon monoxide leaks. If carbon monoxide concentration levels increase to over nine parts-per-million, an alarm would go off for pilots and flight attendants.

Should a commercial aircraft experience a smoke or fume incident, commercial airlines would be forced to report that to a publicly-available database. Report information would include the date of the incident, the tail number of the aircraft, location, and description of fumes and in which phase of flight the incident happened. The Federal Aviation Administration would be responsible for investigating the incident, alongside airlines, technical representatives and any unions involved.

The bill was introduced to Congress in 2019 and has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Aviation for review. The law would need to pass both chambers of Congress before going to the President’s desk to become a law.

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