AFA says time to regulate Cabin Temperature, but not how or who or what-WHY?

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Plane too hot? Too cold? Time for DOT to regulate, attendants say

AFA provides excellent basis for temperature rules

No cite as to how or who or what consequences

Set ASHRAE as authority?

Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, on behalf of her nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, petitioned the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to conduct rulemaking to establish operational temperature standards on commercial airplanes. The 36 page document is strong on justification and weak on the specificity on the AFA request.

The justification for the request was well articulated and substantiated, but in the same text, AFA failed to be specific as to what the DOT/FAA should adopt to meet the union’s goals:

Extreme temperatures clearly impose hardships on passengers and crewmembers. In addition, since February 2012, Congress has mandated that carriers have emergency contingency plans to provide comfortable cabin temperatures. To address the lack of temperature requirements, a revision to the tarmac delay rule may be one way to regulate cabin temperatures, at least for aircraft while on the ground. The best approach will be to promulgate a rule to limit on board temperature extremes during all phases of flight.

Most temperature extremes are seasonal and occur during ground operations, although once an airplane is uncomfortably hot or cold on the ground, in some cases the airplane’s environmental control system may have difficulty mitigating extreme temperatures even after takeoff and during flight. Crewmembers have also reported to AFA extremely cold conditions onboard, both on the ground (depending on the season and airport station) and near the cabin doors inflight when seated near doors with imperfect seals.

Regardless of the rulemaking method chosen, AFA strongly recommends that the DOT adopt the reasonable cabin temperature limits specified in a standard developed by Standard Project Committee 161 of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). This standard, ASHRAE 161, Air Quality within Commercial Aircraft, was developed through a consensus process by a committee that included members from aircraft and component manufacturers, airlines, and crewmember and passenger groups.

First published in 2007, ASHRAE 161 has undergone two subsequent revisions, in 2013 and 2018. The current version of the standard, ASHRAE 161-2018,16recommends the following temperature ranges for commercial aircraft:

  • Target range inflight and on the ground: 65 — 75°F.
  • Maximum allowed temperature on the ground: 65 to 80°F. (with an allowance for a maximum temperature 85°F. if all in-flight entertainment are operating on)
  • Maximum allowed temp. inflight: 80°F.

The ASHRAE standard also defines maximum surface temperature differentials, both for seated occupants and for galleys located adjacent to doors, in order to avoid cold localized areas. Unfortunately, despite the fact that ASHRAE 161 was first published in 2007 as an industry consensus standard, the FAA has failed to encourage its adoption by airlines, and no airline has stepped up to implement the standard’s reasonable and appropriate cabin temperature operational limits.

Therefore, to address the lack of regulatory limits on temperatures in the cabins of commercial aircraft and to ensure the safety, health, and comfort of airline passengers and crewmembers, which is in the public interest, AFA petitions the DOT to:

1) Exercise its rulemaking authority under 49 U.S.C. Subtitle VII, including, but not limited to, 49 U.S.C. 41712 and 42301, to propose and promulgate regulations that adopt the cabin temperature standards published in ASHRAE 161. These standards should include, but not be limited to, the provisions in ASHRAE 161 Section 5 General Requirements and Section 5.2 Temperature and apply to all commercial passenger flights operated by U.S. commercial airlines, as well as by foreign airlines operating to and from U.S. states and territories.

2) Issue guidance encouraging airlines to adopt the cabin temperatures standards published in ASHRAE 161 until a final rule is issued.

3) Establish an advisory committee to conduct ongoing reviews of airplane cabin environmental data and conditions and assist and advise the DOT in proposing rules and standards to ensure the highest levels of safety, health, and comfort for airline passengers and crewmembers.

With the FAA’s recent adoption of performance-based safety standards and the development of those criteria through cooperative industry standards, AFA should get an A+ rating on the regulatory standards, their research basis and the need for some regulatory action. The Appendices are well-documented and balanced. The standards proposed are brilliantly crafted to meet the new FAA preferred criteria.

As noted in the underlined and italicized language, the petition is bereft of specific text for the needed regulation. Leaving the development of the standards and mechanisms to an advisory committee and/or the DOT or FAA professionals is not advisable.

For example, by failing to cite the DOT powers to issue rules (49 CFR Part 5) or the regulations within the Secretary’s competence (14 CFR Parts 206, 221, 244, 259 or a new one) or within the FAA’s domain (14 CFR Part 25 or 121). These are not just nice legal distinctions, but the specific provision carries with it different consequences. Perhaps, most importantly, the absence of naming the person responsible for enforcing AFA’s temperature standard is a significant omission. The union has argued that the safety role of their members is understated. Would not the designation of a Flight Attendant to determine that heat/cold exceeded the regulatory criteria add to the profession?

Another omission in the AFA petition is the consequence of a violation of the standard; for example—

  • Must the flight land immediately?
  • If a particular aircraft make and model has repeated violations of the safe, acceptable range, must
    • The operator(s) ground all other such planes and/or
    • The TC holder issue airworthiness directives to repair the problem?
  • The airline must pay a penalty or issue advisories to consumers of this reoccurring problem?

Buried in this innocent petition MAY BE creating a precedent for another AFA goal—the air quality of aircraft cabins. The full title of the referenced report is ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 161-2018: Air Quality within Commercial Aircraft. The ASHRAE conclusions extend beyond heat and cold to the QUALITY OF THE CABIN AIR.[1]  The union has sought regulation of that aspect of their working environment so far to no avail:

Might AFA assert that if the FAA accepts ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 161-2018 for temperature purposes, that such an acknowledgement of this standard-setting body’s expertise constitutes an admission that this body’s judgment as to air quality is also determinative?

The filing of the petition on July 1 and then a Press Conference almost a month later may cause a skeptic to question the union’s motives. Ms. Nelson is media savvy. The audience for the month’s delay, the key chain thermometer and the clever Apple App might have been her Members. The formal NPRM document were already in the hands of Secretary Chao and Acting Administrator Elwell; so, why the extra event?

[1] By propelling an object into the sky for hours at a time, there are a lot of factors to consider with commercial aircraft. While ostensibly not as crucial as the plane’s structure, the indoor environment aboard the cabin of commercial aircraft faces a deluge of complexities. In general, the aircraft environment is certainly different from other occupied spaces. The obvious reason for this is that—unlike other indoor environments—occupants cannot remove themselves from the environment. Furthermore, the pressure and relative humidity are lower than that found in other environments. Occupant density is also particularly high. This pairs uniquely with the fact that occupant activity levels fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, with passengers being completely sedentary and flight attendants remaining very active. Also connected to this is that the aircraft must be considered both a public place and a workplace. Outside air intended for ventilation in aircraft is first compressed and heated in the aircraft engines or electrically driven compressor. This potentially allows engine-sourced compounds to contaminate the cabin air. For combatting this issue, and considering all the above factors, ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 161-2018 lays out guidelines for air quality in air-carrier aircraft. It also specifies measurement and testing methods to comply with these guidelines.
Read more at the ANSI Blog: ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 161-2018: Air Quality Within Commercial Aircraft


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2 Comments on "AFA says time to regulate Cabin Temperature, but not how or who or what-WHY?"

  1. John Tippets | August 2, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Reply

    Worked one summer for CAB, dealt from the Airline side re CAB and FAA service related regulations, later dealt with 70s wage and price controls… Service level government regulations seemed to only benefit the buracracy and the lawyer’s.

  2. When I worked in corporate aviation, I had a customer that had dual air controls; one for the cockpit and one for the cabin.

    We were instructed to disconnect the cabin control so that the crew set the cabin temp and their passengers thought they had control. From what the pilots said, the passengers never complained.

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