The State of Cabin Air Quality III

Frank provides an update on the progress on Cabin Air Quality

This blog post is tagged with:

Cabin Air Quality Aerotoxic Flights

Cabin Air Quality is not high on Consumers radar, but this latest article/podcast will help in that understanding

Hello and welcome to my latest Podcast; thanks for joining me today. 

Today I’m going to be talking about Cabin Air Quality on aircraft and bringing you up-to-date following the publication of my book, Gaspers. 

As followers and listeners know, I have since 2006 been at the heart of the cabin air quality debate, providing advocacy for the Consumer experience. This has brought me into direct contact with major aircraft and engine manufacturers, oil companies, pilots and cabin crew, along with consumers. Into this mix I have also had the pleasure in meeting with scientists who specialise in toxicology and environmental chemistry, along with civil servants and politicians, who have all helped me form a view of what needs to be done to resolve this decades old problem. 

I have sat in the salons and offices of the European Union and its agencies and argued for a better or safer position for consumers. I have been at the heart of legislative discussions and standards-making both in Europe and in the United States, and it has presented to me a very clear picture, not just of the individual characteristics of those taking part, but also of the evident commercial pressures along with the individual and collective hopes and fears of all the stakeholders. 

By any measure this has been to date, a fascinating journey, into what I deem to be one of the greatest industries on this planet, made physical by the absolute skill set of its engineers. Without this skill set, none of us would be able to travel without these machines over vast distances, to satisfy our leisure and business needs. 

But nobody should be under any misapprehension about my engagement in this work, which is done voluntarily and supported by my own pocket. My work is not free from research, analysis, criticism, and constructive engagement. This is what I have brought to the table since 2006, and what I shall continue to do, with or without consensus, because the issues at stake are not just vital for aircrew and passengers, but I would also say for the very operations of the manufacturers and the airlines who buy their products. 

I've long held the view that working together we can make great things happen, as we proved during the standards drafting process here in the European Union. But given that bleed air aircraft will likely continue to fly across our skies until the 2060s, along with the heightened and growing awareness of the effects of exposure to chemical compounds or ultrafine particles, the issue of safety, and the mitigation of flight critical problems must be paramount; they cannot be determined through a process defined by industrial or political institutions alone. 

This week I was struck by an article I read about a flight incident involving fumes that had entered into the aircraft environment. The report goes back to 2016, but as is the nature of enquiries, it appears that the results of those enquiries have only recently been concluded. The flight in question was an European flight and was climbing to its cruising height when the crew detected a problem within the aircraft cabin and cockpit. The report described an acrid smell but without any fumes or haze. As a result, the pilots carried out their assessment and took corrective actions, but the acrid smell returned. Throughout the pilots were speaking with cabin crew and constantly assessing the situation and invoking emergency procedures; part of those procedures was to don their oxygen masks. 

As they were dealing with the flight emergency, the one pilot described how they felt an unpleasant pressure in their head. The other pilot suffered with a headache and a sore throat. Fortunately, pilots were able to turn the aircraft around and returned to their departure airport safely. 

Once they arrived safely at the terminal building, the pilots were taken from the aircraft and were medically examined, particularly as the one pilot experienced what appears to have been a worsening of their headache and sore throat. 

The pilots were eventually cleared as being fit to fly, though it was interesting to note that both considered their medical assessments to be less than satisfactory. 

What was interesting to discover was that several months previous to this incident, the pilots of another flight had noted a dirty sock odour, which is often reported by many who experience a smoke or fume event; I too have experienced such a smell on a flight to Amsterdam several years ago. 

On another previous flight, another crew reported a strong fume smell after they had also switched the bleed-air – that is the air that you breathe on aircraft – from the auxiliary power unit (which is found in the tail of the aircraft), to the main engines – these same actions were also repeated by the crew of the flight that was being investigated. 

After the second flight, substantial work was carried out to determine and fix the problem, but the engineers could not determine the source of the fumes reported by aircrew. 

The latest investigation into the flight did however discover that a separate system within one of the engines was leaking oil (along with a misalignment of piping elsewhere), and this was considered to be the source of the oil that leaked into the compressor unit of the engine and ultimately into the bleed-air supply and environmental control system of the aircraft. 

As you can see, this was clearly a serious incident, causing some impairment to the flight crew. But what we cannot see from this report is whether or not any of the other aircrew were similarly affected? 

Importantly, given that this incident appeared to be present throughout the aircraft, I’ve noted that there’s no mention of any passengers, who I presume, like the cabin crew were disembarked without receiving any information whatsoever, and certainly no medical assessments were offered. 

You could view this incident to be fairly typical, but I don’t think that is the case. Each flight that is affected has its own unique characteristics and indeed its own affects on aircrew. However, this flight and many others all reveal the same old story, that there is an absolute failure in delivering upon a Passenger’s Right to Know. 

It was that Right to Know that I managed to have added to the text of the European Standard on Cabin Air Quality, but the publication of that Standard was defeated and now the text of the draft Standard sits within a Technical Report which means that there are no requirements or obligations and in fact, no airline or manufacturer has to pay heed to its words. 

But whilst this debate raged within the European arena during the pandemic years, advances were quietly being made which could alter how the issue of Cabin Air Quality will be dealt with. 

The first of these developments comes from the United States, where Senators reignited thair own Cabin Air Quality Bill and brought it back into the United States Congress. I saw the first draft of the Bill a few years ago and considered that whilst its provisions were useful, they did not deliver the strength of purpose so required. However, the latest iteration is a different beast altogether and produces some very strong obligations, particularly on sensors. Now whilst I applaud the reintroduction of this Bill, it falls slightly short of what I would like to see or indeed what you might expect to see within an European Regulation, such as, making the Precautionary Principle central to the operation of the Bill and bringing stronger provisions on a Passengers Right to Know. But that said, the Bill is a remarkable advance and could change the very way in which Cabin Air Quality will be dealt with, at least in the United States. 

Another interesting development comes from within the legal sector through the Harvard Law Review. The authors speculate whether the criminal law could be used to prosecute a Corporation(s) for a case for Climate Homicide; the logic must also follow that those injured by climate could also be beneficiaries of such an action. In their introduction they speak to the very actions of corporations who may have been engaged in, apparently designed by a regulatory or social capture. This capture is apparently found by the a corporations desire to influence, and some would argue, control the very processes that deliver a society’s regulatory framework or of the very message about their products. 

Now I am not saying that Aviation has been involved in any of these endeavours, but the authors of this paper offer this preamble to bring about a discussion about the potential behaviour of a corporate body. 

They conclude that the criminal law can and should be used against corporations, where it has been found that the corporation’s behaviour has fallen below what societies laws against death and perhaps injury state; they concluded that:

“Where the conduct is immoral enough and the harm is great enough, criminal prosecution must be considered as a tool to protect the public”.

It is an interesting paper and if such actions were to be launched against such ‘Climate’ Corporations, who have knowingly caused harm, either by death, and I would argue injury as a result of their damage to the Climate, this would undoubtedly focus the minds of the boards who control these monoliths, which is also one of the arguments of the authors.

The problem with any of these discussions is that the public or indeed some professionals then assume that the actions of a criminal prosecution is the end word in such matters; it is not. Any such prosecution is likely to have to face arguments of remoteness of damage, in other words, are the Company or Corporation’s alleged actions too far away from the victim’s death or injury to make the successful connection, that they caused the deceased’s or victim’s injury?

This is just as an important discussion, and in any subsequent actions against ‘Climate’ Corporations, the resolution of the ‘remoteness argument’ would have a profound affect on other Corporations, including those within the Aviation sector and for the harms that they may have been caused.

It is a public discussion that is a long time incoming, but one that now has reasonably substantial roots; if you want to see an analogy of how this could potentially work in action, then you only have to look at the action taken against Boeing following the 737Max crashes; the issues in that case are laid before all in their glory!

Sticking with legal issues, another development relates to the age-old problem of causation. By causation I mean, was the company’s breach of their duty to keep you safe, and the product or the action they offered to you, cause you harm? The latter element – was a product or indeed an action – is the core question that must be answered in the affirmative in order to be successful in a claim for death or injury – this in simple terms, is the argument of causation.

For many years, there has been a huge back and forth on this issue of causation, with many cases falling by the wayside simply because they cannot prove the causation point.

However, I recently attended a meeting where it is clear, that scientific advances will overcome this particular hurdle. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot provide detail of what will come, but all I can say for now is that this development is significant and will become a game-changer for aircrew and passengers. That is not to say that there won’t be other arguments and factors introduced by any prospective defendant, but when this new solution is introduced, it has the very great potential of altering the balance between the competing parties. These are very interesting days indeed.

But in the meantime, the regulatory and standards circus moves at its own distinct pace.

Since 2019, I have detected a sea-change from the Aviation Industry, an Industry that felt that it was losing the argument on Cabin Air Quality. Certainly since 2012, there has been a greater call to bring a greater balance of interested parties into the room, and indeed, as we proved in Europe, for many years, it was entirely possible to have a frank, honest and open discussion about the problems and nature of Cabin Air Quality and the solutions that needed to be deployed.

Whatever about the heavy global engagement of an Industry in Standards-making, you can see the plethora of patents, being offered by this powerful stakeholder group – it is a natural reaction to the pressures that have been brought to bear. But from 2019, the Aviation User cohort have noted an Industry disinclined to engage with that cohort, projects encountering difficulties because the methodology employed does not include a wider analysis of that methodology, resulting in poor outcomes. We can see the attempts at using single studies or absolute positions to support arguments, sometimes resulting in difficult exchanges. I don’t think the pandemic, climate change nor indeed the rising realisation that the human environment must be either free from toxins or that substantial mitigation measures are in place, to protect human health, have made things any easier. There is a commercial imperative to resist the siren voices of the Aviation User cohort and for some, that means retreating into a Standards-making room which could be viewed as an echo chamber by design.

This change in mood is regrettable, because in my private discussions with those from within the Industry, I have had my own opinions honed or altered, simply by the argument of science or logic. You have to wonder and can only speculate, what arguments or commercial imperatives, or indeed fears, have brought about this sea-change in some of the Stakeholders? But, all things in life are circular and whilst some in the Industry, and indeed some from with the Aviation User cohort, retreat, as elements of this Podcast demonstrates, the Cabin Air Quality world of 2012 no longer exists, and as we shall see, technology and innovative thought will dictate the way ahead, leaving some from both sides of this spectrum in its wake.

It's a fascinating world of Consumer risk and argument, but as many of us already know, you simply have to be in the same room, together!

Until the next time, take care.

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