A stunning new report from the Los Angeles Times details how toxic jet engine fumes can leak into airplanes’ air supplies, sickening passengers and crew — and the airline industry has known this was a problem for several decades.
The Times reports that one pilot told colleagues the situation was “the tobacco and asbestos of aviation.”
A Times analysis of NASA safety reports from January 2018 to December 2019 identified 362 fume events that airline crew members reported to the agency, with nearly 400 pilots, flight attendants and passengers receiving medical attention.
“Fume events” occur when heated jet engine oil leaks into the air supply, causing toxic gases inside the plane.
Airlines and airplane makers are aware that fume events have potentially serious problems. People can get quite sick when breathing in these fumes, according to the Times report, but they haven’t taken measures to prevent the problem even though the technology exists.
Airlines have been asking Boeing to install air sensors for years. But the company decided against developing the technology. Senior Boeing engineers worried that data from sensors would prove damaging in lawsuits by sick passengers and crew members, according to internal emails and sworn depositions obtained by The Times.
An internal Boeing memo described it as a “risk” to give air sensors to even one airline, according to a deposition of a Boeing executive.
The fumes tend to smell like dirty socks or a gym locker, according to people who have experienced it. And while not everyone gets sick, the fumes can give people flu-like symptoms, including vomiting and chills, and they have been linked in some cases to more serious neurological problems. Airlines aren’t required to report fume events, the article notes, and the Federal Aviation Administration “has no plans” to require air filters or air sensors in planes.
A lot of us aren’t flying due to the pandemic and may be feeling a bit wistful about eventually being able to travel again. But before you book those tickets, go read Kiera Feldman’s incredible investigation into jet fuel fumes aboard airplanes.