Air Safety: Responding to Toxic Flight Incidents

Alena Titterton writes:

Aviation safety has been put in the spotlight this week by Sydney Morning Herald revelations regarding incidents of fumes on aircraft flight decks at Qantas.

According to SMH, Qantas was issued with an improvement notice by WorkCover NSW in relation to two incidents, one on 28 July 2007, when the crew on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Auckland became aware of an odour on the flight deck. A Qantas flight engineer suffered watery eyes and laboured breathing after inhaling toxic fumes which resulted in a week away from work.

These recent aviation safety incidents highlight the importance of managing safety in design of aircraft. It has been reported that the issue arises as a result of a design flaw in jet aircraft which involves bleeding warm air off engines and pumping it straight into the cabin of the jet without any filtration. If the engine has an oil leak, the warm air that enters the cabin is laced with tricresyl phosphate, carcinogens and organophosphates. These chemicals are known to attack the nervous system and can result in brain damage.

This is not however, a new safety issue for the aviation industry in Australia or internationally. The Commonwealth of Australia’s Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee undertook an inquiry into the Air Safety and Cabin Air Quality in the Bae 146 Aircraft in October 2000 (the Senate Report). The Senate Report can be found here. The Senate Report stated that:

“Although the incidence of reports of fumes affecting BAe 146 flight and cabin crews has reduced in the last three years, there appears to be no real possibility of such occurrences being eradicated totally as long as air is brought into the jet aircraft by bleeding air from its engines.” (Ch 6, para 6.3 of the Senate Report).

It appears from the recent news coverage that the design flaws which contributed to cases of “aerotoxic syndrome” and toxic fume incidents in the Bae 146 Aircraft have been replicated in Boeing 747, 757 and 767 planes.

The recent toxic fume inhallation incidents provide an opportunity to renew the call to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to re-assess and monitor the issue of aerotoxic syndrome” and toxic fume inhallation under existing civil aviation regulations, as recommended by the Senate Report. Specifically, CASA and the aviation industry should consider whether current reporting requirements in respect of the operation of jet aircraft, specifically related to the effect of cabin and cockpit air quality, are adequate. CASA and the aviation industry in general should address the need for the following in relation to all jet aircraft which were identified by the Senate Report in relation to Bae 146 Aircraft (see Ch 6, para 6.33 of the Senate Report):

  1. a specific national standard for checking and monitoring the engine seals and air quality in all passenger jet aircraft;
  2. maintenance procedures, including specific maintenance procedures for ageing aircraft;
  3. specific, appropriate maintenance and operational procedures for jet aircraft which pay particular attention to the need to ensure that aircraft are maintained and serviced for a minimum operating time to ensure that faults resulting in oil leaks, fumes or smoke are repaired;
  4. the design of incident reports so as to reflect the history of the cabin air problem that was been encountered on the BAe 146 and has been encountered on other jet aircraft;
  5. sources of contamination in the cabin and cockpit environment in jet aircraft to be identified and further evaluated using appropriate sampling and analytical technology for the contaminants which, for example, might result from the burning of fuel and lubricating oil used in jet aircraft engines; and
  6. the need for companies operating jet aircraft in Australia to provide CASA with specific reports on the results of monitoring these matters within an appropriate timeframe, quarterly or bi-annually, in order that CASA can assess the operations of the aircraft.

Clearly, bleeding warm air off engines and pumping it into jet cabins without filtration is a foreseeable risk to the health and safety of both airline employees and non-employees travelling on the aircraft. The issue has to be managed from the design of aircraft through to maintenance, monitoring and reporting. A co-ordinated approach involving CASA as the aviation safety regulator, Boeing and other jet manufacturers, and airlines such as Qantas is required if this serious safety issue is to be resolved.

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