Sucheta Dalal :Flying the toxic skies-II
Sucheta Dalal

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Flying the toxic skies-II  

April 29, 2010

Passengers are supposed to get clean and fresh air during a fight. So why is the air we breathe onboard airplanes so bad?

In the first part of this series, Moneylife gave you a layperson’s view of the various issues surrounding the air we breathe onboard commercial airliners, and asked for responses. In the second part, we now move forward, bringing some technical and legal aspects onboard.


But first, one more simple statement—the new Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ will feature advanced ‘no-bleed’ fresh air systems onboard for cabin air. This is making waves, because it not only promises to provide clean and fresh air onboard, but also tacitly admits that air supplied on its passenger aircraft in the past few decades was not up to the mark.


Please take time out to read the submission by Boeing to the British Parliament on the subject, here:


Some excerpts:


“Ozone converters for outside air are basic equipment on the Boeing 777 and 747-400 Freighter aircraft, and are optional equipment on the Boeing 737 and 747-400 Passenger aircraft.”


“Maximum cabin pressure altitude will be set at 6,000 ft on the Boeing 787. Research at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Services demonstrated a reduction in cerebral/respiratory symptoms and muscular discomfort after three-five hours of exposure to a pressure altitude of 6,000 ft compared with exposure to a pressure altitude of 8,000 ft.”


“The Boeing 787 will have a ‘no-bleed’ architecture for the outside air supply to the cabin. This architecture eliminates the risk of engine oil decomposition products from being introduced in the cabin supply air in the rare event of a failed engine compressor seal. In addition, this architecture improves fuel efficiency, thus reducing fuel burn and associated engine emissions.”


And also, Boeing documents on the subject, as well as just one media report in The Telegraph, see here, here and here.


“On its new Dreamliner, Boeing is to pump fresh cabin air from a separate source (away from the engines) for the first time since the Fifties. This had previously been deemed too expensive.”


“Earlier this year, undercover investigators claimed to have found high levels of a dangerous toxin on several planes using the bleed-air system. Of 31 swab samples taken secretly from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, 28 were found to contain high levels of tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate contained in modern jet oil as an anti-wear additive, which can lead to drowsiness, respiratory problems and neurological illnesses.”


If all these, and more, are not an admission that something is very wrong with the existing system of providing air inside the cabin on an aircraft for passengers to breathe, then what else is?


Please view this in the Indian context, where repeated attempts to contact the ministry of civil aviation on the subject, as well as internal queries on the subject through contacts in the aviation business, bring out the startling fact that there is absolutely no data with the Indian government on this subject—the best they can offer is manufacturer’s data which totally ignores the issue of toxic air onboard.


In other words, there is currently no regulation with the Indian government about the quality of air that you will breathe onboard an aircraft in the Indian skies.


(Barring, it is possible, for the specific new Boeing 737-700 Business Jet Aircraft bought specifically for the Indian Air Force’s VIP ‘Communications’ (Pegasus) Squadron, which may have been fitted out with advanced pure air systems).



But that’s not all. There are now some court judgements, backed by solid technical research, on the subject.


(This is the second part of a three-part series)


-- Sucheta Dalal