May 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio May2000 Current Issue

On Travel

Richard A. Marini


Critics say proposed air-quality standards for planes are too low

Of all the indignities frequent flyers face, perhaps the most overlooked and controversial is the quality of the air they breathe. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers claim cabin air is perfectly healthy and no more polluted than the air we breathe every day. Passenger complaints, they contend, could be the result of travel-related stress.

Two developments have put advocates for passengers and crew members on alert. A respected standards-setting organization has recommended cabin-air ventilation rates some critics say are too low. And 26 Alaska Airlines flight attendants sued their airline and other parties, claiming they suffered health problems after vaporized hydraulic fluids and lubricating oils leaked into the ventilation system.

The proposed standards come from a committee of the Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. For planes carrying 20 or more passengers, ASHRAE suggested a minimum fresh-air rate of 5 cubic feet per person (cfm/person), down from the current rate of 10 cfm/person for planes built after June 1996.

The society does not legislate air-quality standards, but guidelines developed by the group often are adopted by local planning boards and other government agencies.

Flight attendant groups claim the proposal jeopardizes the health of crews and passengers. “[ASHRAE] stacked the committee in favor of the industry, which wants lower standards,” says Christopher Witkowski, director of air safety and health for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Flight Attendants. “The situation puts its integrity under question.”

The Boeing Co. supports a minimum outside airflow rate. In a statement, the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer said its planes “average about 6 to 10 cfm/person of outside air and 10 to 20 cfm/person total air (outside and highly filtered, recirculated air), providing a safe, healthy and comfortable cabin environment.” The company adds that cabin air changes completely 20 to 30 times per hour, four to 15 times more often than in a typical office building.

Breathing fumes from lubricating oils and hydraulic fluids is the basis of the lawsuit brought by the Alaska Airlines flight attendants.

The suit stems from an AFA study of hundreds of complaints from crew members and passengers about the air on the carrier’s planes, primarily MD-80s, dating to the 1980s. The study connected toxic fluids leaked into the cabin with a variety of health problems, including headaches and muscle tremors.

“For 10-plus years, this has been the airline industry’s dirty little secret,” says William B. Knowles, a Seattle-based attorney for the flight attendant union, who was involved with the study. He says that although the problem seems most profound on MD-80s, leaks also have been reported on other planes.

Alaska Airlines disputes this claim. “[We have] invested thousands of hours looking into the unexplained illnesses reported by some of our flight attendants,” wrote CEO John Kelly in a Seattle Times editorial. “Research has validated that our planes are safe.”

The case is set to go to trial in mid-2001, but scientifically, it will be difficult to determine which side is correct, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “We were approached about testing for leaks, but determined it was not feasible for NIOSH to do so,” says Martha Waters, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based agency. M

Watch for the outcomes from these two incidents; they could affect the air quality of travel for years to come.

Following are policies of eight major rental companies.

Richard A. Marini is a contributing editor to Frequent Flyer, a sister publication of M&C. This article was adapted from FF.

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