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Los Angeles Times: Air Cabin Toxicity Could be More Common Than Reported

Los Angeles Times: Air Cabin Toxicity Could be More Common Than Reported
Joe Cortez

Should flyers, airlines, and the Federal Aviation Administration be talking more about toxic air aboard aircraft? An investigation by the Los Angeles Times shows in the 24-month span of 2018 and 2019, there were 362 fume events reported by airline crews, resulting in around 400 people requiring medical treatment.

The discussion around air quality inside aircraft dates back to well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, former FlyerTalk columnist and flight attendant Sarah Steegar wrote about aerotoxic syndrome and fume events aboard aircraft, noting that while flyers and aviation workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, everyone’s reaction is different.

In 2017, FlyerTalk’s Amanda Pleva added to the conversation about aerotoxic syndrome, accusing the industry of denying it, as airlines treat it “like the boogeyman, and affected crews like children are sent back to bed, told not to worry and it will all go away.” In 2018, two U.S. senators introduced a bill that would require the FAA to “develop technology to prevent incidents of contaminated air.” Yet, the industry has continued to do nothing, as they wring their hands over lost revenues from the novel Coronavirus.

The Los Angeles Times looked into just how many flights have been affected by toxic air from chemical or exhaust leaks, and the numbers are staggering. Their research discovered between January 2018 and December 2019, airline workers reported 362 fume events on aircraft, requiring medical treatment for approximately 400 flyers.

Toxic Fumes Incidents Caused by Oil Leaks and Exhaust, Resulting in Varying Responses

According to the accounts given to the newspaper, the different events resulted in a number of responses. Aboard Spirit Airlines Flight 708 in 2015, the pilots say they almost passed out from the fumes, which could have resulted in tragedy. Aboard American Airlines Flight 1380 on June 13, 2019, the pilots returned their aircraft to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) after noticing fumes. The entire flight crew went to the hospital by ambulance, while the aircraft was involved in two more fume events over 11 days.

The simple answer to fume events would be to install carbon monoxide detectors aboard aircraft, similar to smoke detectors in lavatories. Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times suggest that Boeing is reluctant to make the move, over fear that the data could be used in lawsuits. Moreover, the Chicago-based manufacturer may have known about air contamination as far back as 1953.

Under federal law, airlines are not required to inform passengers if they experienced a fume event aboard their aircraft. The FAA did not comment on the reporting by the Los Angeles Times, standing behind reports suggesting air run through HEPA filtration is “better than in an office.” Boeing also refused to comment.

The Smells to Watch for Aboard Your Next Flight

Unfortunately, it’s not very easy to determine if flyers have been exposed to toxic air aboard their aircraft. Carbon monoxide is odorless, decapacitating, and fatal after long exposure times. Furthermore, although the FAA recommends putting carbon monoxide detectors aboard aircraft, airlines have not responded.

The report notes several things to watch for. An odor of “something foul, putrid of acrid” could suggest hydraulic fluid has penetrated the air cabin supply, while the smell of chemicals or mold could be oil. Flyers should take note that if they are feeling groggy, drunk, or have trouble breathing, take it seriously – as it could be early signs of something being wrong on the airplane.

Read the full Los Angeles Times Report

View Comments (7)


  1. vargha

    December 18, 2020 at 4:58 am

    Several years ago, the passenger next to me seemed to be contributing to air toxicity.

  2. Maribago

    December 18, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    So, add one more thing to the carry-on: a CO detector?

  3. sprez33

    December 18, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    Is this a real problem or just a trial lawyer set up??

  4. Dublin_rfk

    December 20, 2020 at 5:05 am

    This comes from the la la times and a place where on a good day the air quality doesn’t reach healthy levels using their standards.

  5. dbusiness

    December 20, 2020 at 8:01 am

    Thanks Joe, People who may be more susceptible to fume events and toxic air are advised to carry a quality, tested N95 or KN95 Mask and wear prior to take off.

    So to further analyze your risk. Take 362 fume events divide by 2 number years reported = 181 events a year, 8,594,716 US Domestic Flights 2019 divide by 181 = 1 in 47,484.62 chance of being on fume event flight. Or 1 in every 4,627,500 passengers sought medical treatment.

    Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) estimate for 2019 US Air passenger volume 925,500,000 Million
    adjusted down 7.07% for international passenger value = 860,067,150 passengers projected on Domestic Flights 2019.
    Bureau of Transportation Statistics BTS Transtats estimate for 2019 Flights, (All U.S. Carriers) – All Airports 8,594,716

    For 2018, based on total 181 fume events and 200 passengers seeking medical treatment.
    2018 1 in 46,400 chance of being on fume event flight. Or 1 in every 3,889,500 passengers sought medical treatment.

    Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) estimate for 2018 US Air, Domestic passenger volume was 777.9 million passengers.
    Bureau of Transportation Statistics BTS Transtats estimate for 2018 Flights, (All U.S. Carriers) – All Airports 8,398,404

  6. rylan

    December 22, 2020 at 6:35 am

    It is a real issue even though incident rate is very low. This comes from the original engine design where bleed air is used to supply air to the cabin climate system. If the seals in the engine are starting to wear and from thermal expansion cycles, then some oil or fluids can get into the bleed air system and be introduced into the cabin air.

    The 787 don’t use engine bleed air for the cabin so the potential is eliminated, but other aircraft from both Boeing and Airbus still use the bleed air for the cabin.

  7. maryhollowell

    December 27, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    I have been sharing concerns about air pollution, particularly Aluminum, Barium, and Strontium, for many years. California lab tests show high levels of Aluminum in rain. It cannot be there, unless it has been mined and refined.

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