Aviation Safety needs to determine whether Cabin Air is Fair or Foul in the SOF context

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American has made Smoke, Odor and Fumes a Priority

The Scientific Record is uneven

Time to engage in an extensive Study of SOF?


Noted aviation safety expert, William Shakespeare, back in 1623, well established the conundrum standard (Macbeth) for resolving cabin air disputes, when his Three Witches said:

“Fair is foul and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air”





That scientific prescience holds true when dealing with the frequent vocal and vehement complaints of cabin and cockpit crews plus, perhaps most importantly, passengers about SMOKE, ODOR OR FUMES (SOF). Unfortunately, although the incidents have been identified, but the expert analyses are not uniform.

[ Even FOTUS has experienced this phenomenon on one of her Joint Base Andrews fleet. ] ⇒⇒⇒





It has been a debate that should be subject to greater technical assessment:

Aircraft Air Safety & Toxic Air Lawsuits—The FAA May Need To Revisit Its Research?

Another Cabin Air Quality Study Adds To The Discussion; More Definitive Study Needed

Cabin Air Quality Studies Sponsored By EASA; New FAA Federal Air Surgeon Might Be Interested

Not surprisingly, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO has provided an extremely informative and comprehensive guide on SOF:

The AFA overview does not mention an important resource for examining SOF, NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System . Reports to this site are deidentified and periodically, the agency’s Ames Research Center analyzes the information and periodically reports findings.

The 130 pages of text reports 50 incidents. That’s exceptional raw data for researchers to analyze SOF phenomena. More reports from flight attendants, pilots and passengers will create more evidence needed to assess this “Fair is foul and foul is fair” issue.




To advance the knowledge on SOF, Sen. Blumenthal (CT-Dem) and Rep. Garamendi (CA-Dem) have  a bill (H.R.2208) “to protect airline passengers and crew from the harmful effects of toxic cabin air.” Here is what the sponsors say their legislation, if enacted, will do:



  • Mandating Training Regarding Toxic Fumes on Aircraft: Require that flight attendants, pilots, aircraft technicians, and first responders receive training on identifying toxic fumes. The training materials will include education on sources and types of fumes, symptoms, appropriate responses, and how to report incidents.
  • Requiring FAA to Record and Monitor Reports of Fume Events: Directs the FAA to develop a standardized form/system to record airline crew reports of toxic fumes. The FAA is required to publish these reports at least quarterly on a public website, so that they can be searched, reviewed, and analyzed.
  • Ensuring Investigations Occur: Requires the FAA to conduct investigations, in cooperation with the airlines and labor unions, after a toxic fume event to study the cause and prevent future events.
  • Installing Carbon Monoxide Sensors on Aircraft: Directs airline manufacturers and air carriers to install and operate carbon monoxide detectors situated in the air supply system to best enable pilots and maintenance technicians to locate the sources of air supply contamination. These detectors will alert the crew if carbon monoxide levels exceed national air quality standards. Aircraft manufacturers must develop procedures that inform the crew on how to respond to alarms.

The Cabin Air Safety Act (H.R.2208) is endorsed by the Air Line Pilots Association International, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Association of Flight Attendants, Transport Workers Union of America, Allied Pilots Association, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, International Union of Teamsters, National Consumers League, Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

If it is enacted, it will be interesting to see how this mandate translates to action on SOF!!!

American Airlines Reported Over 1,600 ‘Smoke, Odor or Fume’ Events Last Year… And That’s an Improvement


In the 12-months from January to December 2019, American Airlines is said to have reported a total of 1,644 so-called ‘Smoke, Odor or Fume’ (SOF) events occurring onboard its aircraft.  That works out to nearly five reported fume events every single day throughout the whole of last year.  Yet, the number of fume events reported in 2019 is actually an improvement on the number reported the year before.

SOF events are sometimes referred to as “toxic fume events” because of claims that dangerous chemicals can become vaporised and inhaled by passengers and crew.  However, OneWorld partner British Airways points out that fume and odor events can be caused by a whole range of issues with examples cited by the airline including strongly-smelling food in cabin bags, burnt food in the oven, aerosols and even e-cigarettes. [A longer report on BA and this issue.]

While some critics accuse the aviation industry of burying its head in the sand over the growing problem of fume events, American Airlines says the issue is a “top priority” and that its actively studying all scientific developments on the issue.

“Cabin odors are a priority for American’s leadership team at the highest level of the organization,” a spokesperson told us in an emailed statement.

“We will continue to apply our industry-leading techniques and monitor all scientific, engineering and medical resources available.  It cannot be emphasized enough that the health and welfare of our crews and customers continues to be our top priority,” the statement continued.

Over recent months, a number of passengers and flight attendants have either been hospitalized or treated by Paramedics following several high-profile SOF events on American aircraft.

On December 26, an American Airlines operated Boeing 737 bound for Mexico City diverted to McAllen, Texas a short time after departing Dallas Fort Worth with reports of smoke in the cabin.  In that incident, two passengers had to be assessed by Paramedics but thankfully no further treatment was required.

And in July, American Airlines flight AA728 from Philadelphia to London had to declare a medical emergency when the smell of old musty socks in the cabin made all nine flight attendants and several passengers unwell.  In that incident, the Airbus A330 diverted to Boston where the flight attendants were transported to the hospital for assessment before later being released.

Perhaps most troubling of all though was an incident in October when two flight attendants passed out for a short period when they apparently became overpowered from the smell of industrial-strength cleaning fluid.  American Airlines flight AA729 from London Heathrow to Philadelphia diverted to Shannon where the crew and several passengers were treated for eye irritation and coughing.

While the official cause of the accident was put down to aircraft cleaners at the airport accidentally leaving the chemical solution in a lavatory by mistake, sources quoted by the BBC said it “was ‘inconceivable’ that dish soap (cleaning solution), or any other cleaning product approved for use on aircraft, could cause two people to pass out.”

No wonder, Captain Dan Carey of the American Airlines pilots union previously warned a toxic fume event could “result in immediate incapacitation and have a long-term adverse impact, and it can affect everyone on board.”

The American Airlines flight attendants association, however, says the carrier has recently become more proactive in dealing with the threat of fume events and is a lot more transparent about the issue than what it has been in the past.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) currently advises its members to seek specialist treatment and medical testing within four hours of suspected exposure but does not currently recommend flight attendants wear protective equipment should a fume event occur.

“Flight Attendants have detailed procedures in their Flight Attendant Inflight Manual, including an Odor in Cabin chart and Fume/Odor Category Identification Chart,” a spokesperson for the airline told us.  “Flight Attendants are instructed to use their charts when relaying odor issues to the flight crew and our maintenance teams.”


The data accumulated and assessed so far have not led to any strong conclusions. To add a variation to the Shakespeare aphorism, “where there is smoke, there is fire” according to significant aviation safety stakeholders. If nothing else, it appears to be appropriate to determine whether SOF is fair or foul.


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