A former British Airways pilot who was in the cockpit of commercial jets for 19 years is warning that in addition to terrorists, crashes and hijackings, passengers need to worry about the air they breathe while aloft.
He said he’s finished six years of research into a phenomenon he fears threatens every airline passenger today, an air supply that is so poisoned the flight deck crew might no longer be able to fly the airplane.
“Even more worrying is that, just like an over-confident drunk driver at the wheel of a car, they would have no idea they were doing anything wrong,” Tristan Loranie wrote in a report in the Daily Mail.
The situation already has a name: aerotoxic syndrome, and Loranie concludes that “alarmingly, it’s not something I’ve made up.”
He said the problem comes from the engineering in today’s aircraft that allows half of the air in the cabin to come from the “blisteringly hot heart of its engines” that is only cooled before it and “any toxins it might have picked up along the way” is directed straight into the passenger cabin.
It’s a system that is decades old, and never has been improved specifically to address safety concerns, he said.
“In half a century of aviation progress, control and back up systems have been transformed, anti-collision systems introduced and navigation taken to stunning new heights. But nothing has been done about the fact that all on board – passengers and crew alike – are breathing unfiltered air straight from the engines,” he warned.
He first was alerted in 2001 while serving as union representative for the British Airline Pilot’s Association. “One Sunday night I took a phone call from a pilot who said he was regularly being poisoned by chemicals in the cockpit air supply, that flight safety was being seriously threatened and that the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers were engaged in a massive coverup,” Loranie said.
He started watching for symptoms, and checking statistics, and found he was himself “displaying symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome.”
One flight ended, he said, in “full emergency with both myself and the co-pilot wearing emergency oxygen masks because fumes in the cockpit had left me feeling like I’d been hit by a baseball bat.”
“We did get down safely, but … a couple of hours later I couldn’t find the key to start my car,” he wrote of his disorientation. “It was still in the car door.”
Eventually the numbness in his fingers and feet, nausea and heart palpitations, confirmed, he said, by doctors as coming from toxins in aircraft air, prompted the Civil Aviation Authority to take away his medical certificate.
At the University of New South Wales, a special research project has been launched to look into the “association of symptoms” among pilots and flying officers who are “exposed to hydraulic or engine oil vapors or mists.”
It is reviewing, among other issues, the toxicity of jet oils, the impacts of flight crew members, and an assessment of jet oil leaks.
At a website called Aerotoxic, there is an announcement about a program scheduled to be aired on the BBC on March 3 that focuses on Loranie’s work, and the issues that are raised.
The site explains the Aerotoxic Association was assembled by air crew members worried about their health and safety and that of their passengers.
“We are dedicated to informing crews and passengers about the health hazards they are exposed to, providing support and advice to sufferers, and raising recognition, through legal activity, that airlines and aircraft manufacturers are not being honest with crew and passengers,” the website said.
Association president John Hoyte has warned that in a worst-case scenario, a flight could simply fall out of the sky.
“Pilots can be knocked out by the fumes and in that situation there’s every chance a plane could crash. … Many times we’ve seen pilots become completely incapacitated and completely unable to fly the aircraft. If you get two pilots knocked out at the same time you’ve got a real, real problem. Almost certainly accidents can be caused by it,” he said.
Loranie said in today’s passenger jets, half of the cabin air is recirculated from the cabin itself, with only a filtration system to clean it up.
“It’s the other 50 percent of cabin air, however, that is the problem, because it comes from deep within the engines that are flying the plane. Bled off from the engine – and, therefore, known as ‘bleed air’ – before the fuel is injected and burnt, bleed air is piped back to the fuselage where it is cooled down and then pumped into the cabin,” he said.
“Crucially and extraordinarily, bleed air is not filtered at all,” he said. That leaves whatever chemicals and toxins it may have picked up in passing through the engine being pumped directly to pilots, flight crew members and passengers.
He said airline industry leaders keep the level of toxicity a closely guarded secret. “But it is now generally accepted – except by the airlines, the aircraft manufacturers and the British government – that vaporized jet oil contains neuro-toxic, immuno-toxic, and potentially carcinogenic organophosphates that are related both to the deadly nerve gas sarin, and to the chemicals found in anti-malaria and anti-nerve drugs implicated as causing Gulf War Syndrome when given to troops in the first Gulf War,” he said.
He said the first real breakthrough will arrive when the new Boeing 787 arrives.
“For the first time in almost 50 years, a new passenger jet will take to the skies that doesn’t use bleed air at all but instead will replenish its cabin air from the cool, clean skies that it flies through…” he said.