The State of Standards - Cabin Air Quality

How long does it take to boil an egg; how long does it take to create a Standard or Law to protect people?

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Cabin Air Quality European Standards Aerotoxic Flights

Are we about to see a revolution on Cabin Air, or, are we about to witness more obstacles on the road?

Hello and welcome to my latest Podcast. Today I am going to talk about Cabin Air Quality and the State of Standards; the State being the principal backer of Standards work and the actual state of Standards.

So why Standards?

Standards are viewed as consensual solutions to the myriad of engineering and technical issues that can arise on aircraft.  Standards are generally seen as a softer option against hard law, in an effort to create a wider compliance and perhaps innovation. They are attractive to legislatures because they potentially take the hard work out of law-making.  Standards are generally non-binding and have no legislative force, but they are potentially persuasive on compliance where a complaint or problem arises on an aircraft. The argument made by Campaigners was this: “If we have no immediate opportunity to create hard obligatory law, then we should as important stakeholders have a seat at the Standards top table to direct and influence their content”.

As a result, I have found myself working in Standards, initially in the United States, along with work in the UK and in Europe.

The experience in the United States is interesting, this is because I have recognised the cultural differences that exist between the USA & Europe. This ranges from attitudes toward regulation/deregulation, to how businesses are run and how employees of those businesses engage with workplace issues. It has been vital to understand these differences because they help to inform why positions are taken and the potential route to engagement; it has been a mediation masterclass, without the formal training!

To give you an example of some of the difficulties, there are times when I have felt that the Consumer point of view has been drowned out.  But then if you are suggesting the introduction of the Precautionary Principle into an American Standard, you’d better be prepared for the almost apoplectic reaction to you proposal.

Another example can be found on ground-based thresholds; their suggested use in the aircraft environment provides for an abstract debate.  So for example, it has been suggested that current thresholds do not deliver consideration of the ‘emergency’ conditions that arise from a fume event. It has been suggested that they could be increased in line with the US Department of Energy, Health, Safety & Security’s, Protective Action Criteria (PAC) emergency thresholds.  If we followed that logic, for example, the Carbon Monoxide (CO) threshold could increase threefold from the current stated levels; is this acceptable?  Now I have deliberately chosen CO because I wondered what might be the motivation behind this move?  I could be wrong, but the United States may pass/implement a Cabin Air Safety Act (2019) (currently it is passing through the US Congress).  Within that Act there is a requirement that will require airlines to fit Carbon Monoxide (CO) sensors.  I can see the concerns of airlines, worried that CO sensors would deliver repeated warnings which may affect the viability and operations of that aircraft.  It therefore raises the point; would the proposed increase in the CO threshold level ensure that the sensor would not be activated so often; how does that benefit the occupants; do airlines already know how much CO is present on any given flight?

Remember, standards-making shifts debate away from any ‘hard law’ requirements & has delivered a global standards-circus, where we criss-cross time zones to deliver documents that hopefully provide value and fairness for all.  In Europe, as campaigners, we challenged the orthodoxy of a published Industry standard as not reflecting the reality of flight nor indeed the participation of a wider stakeholder cohort.  That standard was overturned and new work began in 2015 to create a European Standard.  In the beginning, it was difficult, with both sides entrenched, but European politics always delivers on engagement and consensus.  In 2020, despite the challenges of COVID & over 1,100 Public comments, we produced a draft Standard of value.  The document delivers series of mechanisms (or a hierarchy of controls) all under the watchful umbrella of the Precautionary Principle. This document does not contain thresholds, because that is what ALL the stakeholders agreed we should do, we went beyond the pass/fail criteria.  Our work delivered due care and attention and due diligence, along with consensus from every single sector in this debate.  The current draft Standard presents the very best of solutions, where formal European regulation has thus far failed.

Through this process in 2020, we began to see the emergence of a press narrative that demonstrated that some wished to resile from the previous position of consensus.  Equally, during the process of the last two years, some external letters were received on cabin air quality.  Some of those letters were brought to our attention; some I have subsequently been made aware of.  Whilst I could certainly provide extensive commentary on the issues that were raised, I will not do so at this time simply because I wish to respect the fact that they appear to be protected by privacy.  But from what I have seen, in my opinion, some contain matters of important public interest warranting at least some form of debate.  Currently this is a matter for others to deal with!

Despite these interventions, there was a clear fear from some that this Standard would enter the lexicon of Aviation laws, but given that many laws they refer to as “regulation” such as CS, AMC’s AltMoc’s are in fact voluntary, non-binding and, have no legislative force, so their fear is somewhat redundant.  As COVID entered our lives, some wanted to suspend the work.  

At the end of 2020, when many expected that the draft Standard would go out for a formal vote, potentially leading to publication, we all experienced an interesting commentary and some surprises on the outcome of our expectations.  A decision was made not by the experts but for the experts, as to what would next happen to the draft Standard and its future direction of travel, leading to yet another Public Enquiry.  The arguments I heard to support this action stemmed from some wanting to give those ‘not in the room’ the opportunity to submit their own points of view or, a lack of consensus or, a claim of reliance on the so-called ‘Salon’ case as reasons for not sending the document out to member states for a decision toward publication.

The ‘not in the room’ argument simply fails because aviation manufacturers and airlines have all been actively engaged in the global-standards-circus, they would have to be socially isolated not to hear and read of the existence of this European Committee; in any event, they had representation from the early days on this Committee.

A claim for a lack of consensus also fails because the facts speak for themselves; we had come to trust each other and had defined a clear process that delivered for all voices through due diligence.

The Salon argument demonstrated a misunderstanding of the case, which was essentially a dispute between two technical committees.  One committee claimed that the other’s published standard should not stand because some of its measures needed to be carried out by qualified people. The important argument challenged that this published standard failed to protect the health and safety of EU Citizens.  The case simply had no analogy to our present circumstances.

As we all struggled to deal with this new direction of travel, I also discovered two other important issues.

The first related to the Fuel Tank Inerting System, delivering a separation of bleed-air gases & compounds, so providing an inert gas for the fuel tanks on aircraft.  It caused me to ask, if this separation technology already exists, then why had this not been discussed since 2015?

The second relates to a case that came before the European Court of Justice in 2017, which declared that mandated/harmonised Standards, attached to European Regulation, should also be considered as law.  This decision has already had a profound affect on the Standards world and I suspect some reticence from Companies who had been given up-to-now free-rein to define their operations.  It got me thinking.  The Treaties of the EU provide a division of labour and competency for the benefit of the Union and the Single Market.  One competency is Aviation.  EASA has been given that competency by the EU to make regulation.  Therefore, the ‘standards’ attached to formal regulation, those being CS’s, AMC’s & AltMoC’s, must therefore be logically mandated and harmonised, and should surely now be classed as formal law, with all their apparent imperfections?

In my opinion, It presents an opportunity for Trade Unions across Europe, who should begin the conversation and challenge the status of European Aviation Standards, utilising the arguments and logic of this case (James Elliot Construction - Aggregate - Could court adjudicate on a harmonised standard).  Would this not create a sense of purpose and legal certainty; what about benefit to pilots and cabin-crew and ultimately the passengers?

In conclusion, we are now faced with a number of pressure points:

  1. Recognising the extensive risks that exist in standards-making against the risks faced by the occupants of aircraft (Vested Interests/application of rules);
  2. In Europe, finding a way to restore consensus, trust and once again determining ethical intentions;
  3. As we subscribe to standards-making rules and ethics, how we can ensure that the work guarantees process, enforcement, oversight, courage or stability;
  4. Will we once again have to respond to the desire for a performance-based or thresholds Standard;
  5. Should we claim a necessary & properly formed methodology, clear & open analysis and a recognition of a wider European Union process;
  6. Will this work lead to arguments without end when all thought that such arguments had been resolved by consensus;
  7. From a personal perspective, if a process produces difficulties that could ultimately deliver detriment to Consumers, is it right to continue to legitimise that process.

These are difficult questions but are now accompanied by the need to carry out a continual risk assessment of any standards-making process; it is no longer an option not to risk assess this work.

Looking forward, I think there are several immediate challenges ahead:

  1. The challenge of the appropriateness of ground-based thresholds against the failure to properly define the uniqueness of the aircraft environment.  There needs to be a hierarchy of argument;
  2. EU Aviation law/standards provides a presumption of compliance, which is flawed, because it imports the ‘benefit of the doubt’ argument, resoundly rejected by the Precautionary Principle - is this the ultimate direction for this Standard, and finally;
  3. We as Campaigners have in my opinion taken our eyes off the ‘regulatory’ ball, and I hope others will join me in creating a formal European Regulation on Cabin Air Quality.

In my opinion, the State of Standards are now at a crossroads, what we do next is important for all.

(This is the script for Frank's Podcast - The State of Standards - Cabin Air Quality. You can watch and listen to Frank's Podcast here. This text and podcast is subject to © 2021 and any reproduction of text, sound or video, in any form, requires written permission)