Sucheta Dalal :Flying the toxic skies-III
Sucheta Dalal

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Flying the toxic skies-III  

May 5, 2010

In part III, we try to bring forth the legal and regulatory aspects in India, such as they are.
Cabin air quality is another word that comes up again and again in context with toxic air on board modern passenger airplanes. Research on the subject has been reported from as far back as the '80s and '90s, and from interested parties in parts of the world as diverse as Hong Kong, USA, Canada, UK, some European countries, and Australia. The results of these studies and investigations sound suspiciously like similar research done in those days and previously on subjects like tobacco and automobile emission—with brilliant usage of phrases like "not sufficient proof" or "can not be confirmed". However, nowhere is it denied that an increasing number of people, both passengers and crew, are often suffering from something during and after flights. And increasingly, data being acquired is beginning to support the point of view of those who wish to be heard on the subject.
It is just that the whole effort seems to get lost in semantics and grammar, as well as long words, while the aviation industry moves on towards a permanent race towards increasing efficiencies of scale as well as turning profits. In itself, not an altogether incorrect approach, but at what cost?
Within the Indian regulatory context, there is apparently close to no research or studies on the subject available to the public and the standard response from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as well as the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) is that they go as per manufacturer's specifications. Take a closer look at the DGCA specified "Cabin Inspection Report", and it does not have even a single reference or column to air-quality on board prior, during or after a flight. Incidentally, this is basic information that the engineering and other departments in better hotels take the effort to source out, record, and if required, fix. This is also not rocket science, since all it requires is training that an aircraft engineer or cabin/cockpit crew already has and instruments that would cost at best a few thousands of rupees. Expect to see such instruments, incidentally, inside the cabins of luxury cars very soon.
Simple fact remains: "Internal Air Quality" is a subject of great importance now and very simple as well as portable instruments are available easily all over the world, including in India, to measure walk-through as well as long-term parameters on toxic gases, particulates, moisture, ventilation (so important when the aircraft is on the ground for long periods), and most of all, volatile compounds in the environment on board which, inside an airplane, means the assortment of gaseous chemicals that will find their way through the filters—from the fuel, lubricants, seals and other chemicals in use. Remember, we are talking of bleed air coming out of the engines at temperatures higher than 400 degrees centigrade, once the engines are operating at thrusts varying from take-off to cruise. And at pressures varying from fractions of ground level outside, to multiples inside the engines, which in turn if you recall your school level PVT formulae, do some amazing things to most matter, leave alone volatile chemicals.
But then, of course, it suits our babus to continue to trot out the manufacturer's line. And not just with civil aviation. Just like they've done for the tobacco issues—till today, bidi packets are not marked as dangerous, paan masala with tobacco continues along its merry way at a cancer hospital near you, and as for the "smoking kills" campaign—the less said the better. Even the much maligned Indian Railways have commenced studies to investigate air quality in their newer air-conditioned rakes, especially for the 3-Tier air-conditioned wagons, where you have a large number of people inside an almost hermetically sealed environment, and where, if in doubt, you can always open the door. But civil aviation? It is probably more important to work on privatisation of airport contracts.
As a seafarer, your correspondent knows the subject—from the proverbial mynah bird let down into cargo holds and tanks to chirp out about good or bad air quality to modern day instruments, which define the same thing in a more precise manner. Your writer has seen them all—in sizes from as small as a pocket sized ball-pen to the largest pre-fitted in suitcases, which are smaller than the size of carry-on cabin baggage. Accommodation blocks on ships at sea seldom need to have cabin air quality measured, since fresh sea air at normal barometric pressures is available in vast quantities, but even there these are often tested. However, it is for the cargo spaces, deep tanks, double bottoms and other spaces and those going inside them that these instruments become life savers. And they are so easily as well as freely available that one wonders why the aviation regulators in India do not simply reach out and borrow a few-unless they already know the results and are not keen to do so officially?
So, to round off—in the rest of the free and democratic world, court judgements as well as research on cabin air quality within passenger aircraft are beginning to show up. Bear in mind that the sheer effort of taking on the aviation industry in anything—remember the last time you tried to fight for a simple refund due to you and finally gave up, means that the smallest victory has a much larger story and effort behind it.
Do take a look here, then: see here

And also:
The global resource point on this subject is here, at the website of the "Global Cabin Air Quality Executive" (GCAQE): 
In very brief, an airline that operated a particular brand and model of a passenger aircraft, which often released smoke and fumes, was successfully sued by a cabin crew member who suffered from respiratory problems due to this and in doing so opened the door to multiple litigations on the same subject worldwide. Since aviation is a worldwide industry, it is anticipated that this judgement will open the floodgates. It is pertinent to point out here that one of the earliest studies on the subject was conducted by the Royal Australian Air Force, results of which were on the Internet but seem to have now gone adrift—they were startling, to say the least.
In the absence of any regulations in India to date for aircraft cabin air quality, it appears as though it will be very difficult for anybody to seek legal or other assistance in this matter in this country, but it will not end there. Indian registered aircraft operating to countries where standards and legalities are being set at this time will need to comply if they wish to fly to those destinations. Within India, domestic airlines will need to adhere to stringent international parameters even if the regulators do not insist, if they wish to keep their insurance levels up towards servicing international passengers. And eventually, hopefully, it shall be articles like this in a free media that will jerk the authorities out of their toxic air induced sleep on board airplanes into doing something on the ground with the regulations that are fast needed.
After all, if we can have these instruments and precautions on board ships and hotel rooms, then why not in airplanes?

(This is the concluding part of the three-part series) — Veeresh Malik

-- Sucheta Dalal