Flight secrets: Pilot reveals how dangerous the cabin air of a plane really is


Flights see some travellers distressed about the quality of the air they are breathing in during the flight. It’s commonly believed the cabin air is recirculated and will easily make people very ill. However, pilot Patrick Smith has revealed this should not be a concern as the air is a mixture of both fresh and recirculated. Studies have shown that a crowded plane has no more germs than any other enclosed spaces, and in fact probably has less.

“Boeing says that between 94 and 99.9 per cent of airborne microbes are captured, and there’s a total changeover of air every two or three minutes – far more frequently that occurs in office move theatres or classrooms,” he wrote in his book Cockpit Confidential.

It’s also not true that pilots routinely cut back on the volume of air flow in order to save fuel.

Smith points out: “Pilots cannot tinker with a plane’s air-conditioning systems to modify the ratio of fresh to circulated air.

“The ratio is predetermined by the manufacturers and is not adjustable from the cockpit.”

There is also the concern that toxic air is present in plane cabins. This has hit headlines recently after a British Airways pilot declared an emergency two weeks ago when crew complained of a ‘toxic smell.’

Trade union Unite is now calling for a full public inquiry into aerotoxic syndrome – the damage resulting from long-term exposure to toxic fume events.

Unite said in a statement last week: “Aerotoxic syndrome, in which flight crew and passengers fall ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals found in engine oil that may contaminate cabin air, has been blamed for symptoms ranging from nausea and dizziness to chronic conditions such as cognitive impairment.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has responded to such arguments over recent years.

They said: “It is acknowledged that people who experience a fume event (of any type) may report symptoms such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. These symptoms usually resolve, however, once the fumes or smell have disappeared.”

According to their current statement: “We rely on guidance from scientific experts based on the results of a number of independent studies and evidence reviews – including Government commissioned research.

“Long term ill health due to any toxic effect from cabin air is understood to be unlikely, although such a link cannot be ruled out.

“A recent study commissioned by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which maintains responsibility for approving the safety of aircraft and setting aviation standards for European airlines, concluded that the air quality on flights it tested was similar or better than that observed in normal indoor environments.

According to Smith, passengers should be more concerned about getting ill from what they are touching rather than breathing. “A little hand sanitiser is probably a better safeguard than the masks I occasionally see passengers wearing,” he wrote.

Last year CBA News Marketplace conducted an investigation to find out where the filthiest parts of the plane are, as well as some of the vilest items found onboard.

The investigation swabbed 100 areas of the plane on 18 short-haul flights on three major airlines in Canada. Some of the locations included the headrest, tray table and seat belt. 

The headrest was the worst place on the plane, with haemolytic bacteria and E.coli found on it, as well as having the highest aerobic count.

This was followed by the seat pocket, washroom handle, tray table and then the seatbelt which came in fifth place.


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