Cure to bad cabin air elusive, report says

  • Bryan Corliss / Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, January 22, 2002 9:00pm
  • Business

By Bryan Corliss

Herald Writer

More research needs to be done to determine what causes airline passengers to complain about bad air, according to a report recently issued by the National Research Council.

One simple solution would be to increase the cabin pressure, something some airlines already have done, said a University of Washington researcher on the panel that wrote the report.

That’s possible, one of the Boeing Co.’s top environmental control systems engineers said, but all the options mean burning more fuel.

And just adjusting the air pressure alone isn’t likely to solve the problem, which could be caused by any number of factors, said Boeing’s Richard Johnson. "Really, all of them need to be looked at," he said. "There’s no silver bullet that takes care of everything."

The report was delivered to Congress last month. It calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to take a more active role in determining whether the air inside passenger jets meets public health standards.

The report notes that both passengers and flight crews frequently complain about unpleasant and unhealthy air.

Some critics say the problem lies with the fact that cabin air is partially recirculated — a fact that increases jet engine performance at the expense of allowing germs or contaminants to hang in the air longer.

That’s not the case, the report said. "The use of recirculation has no detrimental effect on cabin air quality … and when combined with effective HEPA filtration, does not contribute to the spread of infectious agents in the cabin."

But while the report states that recirculation isn’t the culprit, it doesn’t point out a clear reason for bad air.

The research report lists 11 factors that could cause bad-air complaints, from germs carried on board by sick passengers to oil or hydraulic fluids that could leak into the ventilation system from the engines, to dry air that irritates eyes and noses.

The two biggest concerns, said UW environmental health professor Mike Morgan, are cabin air pressure and ozone buildup.

The pressure issue may be the easiest to solve, said Morgan, part of the 13-person panel that spent nine months studying the issue last year.

Air gets thinner at higher altitudes, which makes it harder to breathe. Airplane cabins are pressurized to combat this. But the difference between the pressure inside the plane and outside can’t be too great or the plane will burst like an overinflated balloon.

So the pressure is adjusted on a sliding scale, decreasing the higher the plane gets. Current FAA regulations say that, at the least, the air inside a plane must be pressurized to the equivalent of 8,000 feet. While most people can breathe comfortably at that altitude, some passengers with heart and/or lung diseases cannot, Morgan said. He recommends higher air pressures, more like those at 6,000 feet.

"Nothing is simple when it comes to a commercial airliner, but it can be done," he said.

However, flying at a lower altitude burns more fuel because of drag.

High ozone levels can also cause problems, the report said, including irritated noses and throats and breathing trouble.

Both Morgan and Johnson said the next step should be an FAA-directed, congressionally funded study of all the factors.

But in the wake of Sept. 11, the relative importance of cabin air quality has fallen compared to issues like airline safety, Morgan said. "And rightly so," he added.

You can call Herald Writer Bryan Corliss at 425-339-3454

or send e-mail to corliss@heraldnet.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Business

The Westwood Rainier is one of the seven ships in the Westwood line. The ships serve ports in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast Asia. (Photo provided by Swire Shipping)
Westwood Shipping Lines, an Everett mainstay, has new name

The four green-hulled Westwood vessels will keep their names, but the ships will display the Swire Shipping flag.

Lead climbers head up their respective routes at Vertical World North on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Beginner’s ascent: A newcomer’s guide to indoor climbing

Indoor climbing gyms in and around Snohomish County offer thrills without winter chills.

Alexis Burroughs holds a bigleaf maple leaf while guiding her participants through sensory observation during a forest bathing session Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, at Lord Hill Regional Park near Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
To restore human bond with nature, locals lead forest bathing sessions

A yoga instructor in Bothell and Adopt a Stream in Everett say the meditative practice evokes emotion, health benefits.

Instructor Gael Gebow checks her stopwatch while tracking her group’s exercises during her Boot Camp fitness class Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, at the YMCA in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
YMCA fitness instructor challenges, empowers Everett residents

Gael Gebow has made inclusivity and healthy living her focus in 23 years at the YMCA.

A view of the Broadway construction site of Compass Health’s new mental health facility on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Compass Health dedicates Everett block to housing and behavioral health services

The “state-of-the-art” project is set to total over $90M. The nonprofit has asked for public support.

More than 150 people attend a ribbon cutting event on Nov. 16, 2023 celebrating the completion of Innovation Hall at the University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia College campus. The building, which highlights STEM instruction and research, opens to students in January. Credit: Tara Brown Photography/UW Bothell
New science, math facility opens in January at UW Bothell

Innovation Hall is the first new building to be constructed at the Bothell university campus in 10 years.

Everett
Rairdon Auto Group acquires Pignataro VW in Everett

Everett VW dealership is the 12th for the Rairdon Group, which marks 30 years in business this year.

A Keyport ship docked at Lake Union in Seattle in June 2018. The ship spends most of the year in Alaska harvesting Golden King crab in the Bering Sea. During the summer it ties up for maintenance and repairs at Lake Union. (Keyport LLC)
In crabbers’ turbulent moment, Edmonds seafood processor ‘saved our season’

When a processing plant in Alaska closed, Edmonds-based business Keyport stepped up to solve a “no-win situation.”

Angela Harris, Executive Director of the Port of Edmonds, stands at the port’s marina on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Leadership, love for the Port of Edmonds got exec the job

Shoring up an aging seawall is the first order of business for Angela Harris, the first woman to lead the Edmonds port.

The Cascade Warbirds fly over Naval Station Everett. (Sue Misao / The Herald file)
Bothell High School senior awarded $2,500 to keep on flying

Cascade Warbirds scholarship helps students 16-21 continue flight training and earn a private pilot’s certificate.

Rachel Gardner, the owner of Musicology Co., a new music boutique record store on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024 in Edmonds, Washington. Musicology Co. will open in February, selling used and new vinyl, CDs and other music-related merchandise. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
New Edmonds record shop intends to be a ‘destination for every musician’

Rachel Gardner opened Musicology Co. this month, filling a record store gap in Edmonds.

MyMyToyStore.com owner Tom Harrison at his brick and mortar storefront on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Burst pipe permanently closes downtown Everett toy store

After a pipe flooded the store, MyMyToystore in downtown Everett closed. Owner Tom Harrison is already on to his next venture.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.