August 27, 2018

What goes up may not come down, might be the case for CO₂ levels aboard airplane flights

Julie Spitkovsky, LinkedIn

The cost of unhealthy air just soared to new ‘heights’, since you can’t place a value on human life. While the implications of unhealthy air are well documented at this point, less so is the nature of indoor air quality and its monitoring on airplanes, a built environment that typically faces more imminent threats.

If you’re someone that spends a lot of time on airplanes, air quality is as important on flight as it is in ones home. But the threat of poor air quality is now materializing.

In a new study by Harvard Professor Dr. Joe Allen, the first to demonstrate that carbon dioxide levels adversely affect pilot performance, researchers found that pilots were 69% more likely to receive a passing grade on an average maneuver when the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels were at either 700 ppm or 1500 ppm. The data also showed that commercial pilots were more successful at performing advanced maneuvers and managing emergency situations like single-engine failure during takeoff when the levels of CO2 in the cockpit were 700 ppm. While average concentrations of CO₂ levels on deck are below 1000 ppm, the 95th percentile concentration can be as high as 1400 ppm, depending on the airplane type. In that case, just hope your next flight doesn’t require advanced maneuvering by the pilot. Alternatively, airplanes utilizing indoor air quality monitoring devices on flights are better off.

The study also points towards a new kind of accountability on the part of the airline to protect its passengers from unsafe air that may be toxic to the pilot, therefore affecting the safety of the flight. In terms of the health of the passengers, crew & pilots, the airline may also be accountable for protecting against prolonged exposure to unsafe or even toxic air, especially during cross continental travel. And, just because courts have yet to assign liability to poor air quality doesn’t mean that poor air quality hasn’t been the cause of plane crashes, it’s just that we don’t know of any cases where air quality monitoring has been done on airplanes that have crashed.

Today, the airline industry has many protocols in place for accumulating knowledge, and receiving consistent and continuous feedback, a standard mechanism in the airline industry. With these mechanisms already in place, there are few barriers to standardizing air quality on planes.

“The first time we really thought of air quality monitoring on airplanes was when the Airthinx IAQ device first launched in ‘17, and we were flying all over the world for meetings,” says electrical engineer and Netronix CEO, Dr. Vasileios Nasis.“ I always wondered why I felt so lethargic just before takeoff, and now I realize it’s because of the Carbon Dioxide levels. Of course my next logical concern was ‘oh s*** what if the pilots feel like this too!’” Nasis says he used the Airthinx to measure CO2 levels on his subsequent flights, finding levels above 2500 ppm before take off and after landing. In flight, the measurements fluctuated between 1500 and 2000 ppm, not far off from the simulated study by Allen of Harvard.

Typically, the ventilation systems are off or low from the time of take off until the plane reaches flying altitude, which explains the feeling of sleepiness. Thus high levels of Carbon Dioxide or other pollutants can be utilized as a signal of improper mechanical system functioning, as was the case with air cabin pressure in Helios Flight 522.

Dr. Katerinakis, in his book titled, “The Social Construction of Knowledge in Mission-Critical Environments: The Lessons from the Flight Deck”, explains what happened on Helios Flight 522:

The Helios 522 “Ghost Plane” Flight was a unique accident in the history of world aviation, with only 2 other reported accidents occuring under similar conditions where all of the passengers were unconscious. It’s been referred to as the False ‘Greek 9/11’ threat.

There, the pilot and co-pilot seemed to have missed the checklist entry for a crucial AC switch which remained in ‘manual’ (they were suppposed switch it to auto).

When they set the plane to auto-pilot to reach cruising altitude, it took all of 13 minutes for air pressure to drop during the climb. The pilots, misinterpreting the warning signals of the air pressure drop, instead suspected an overheating problem, until they became unconscious, along with the passengers, suffered hypoxia, and died at impact. There were 122 fatalities.

In other words, the only terrorist aboard Helios Flight 522 was poor air quality. Said differently, an Airthinx could have saved the day.

An additional benefit of monitoring air quality is the ability to track a flight in real-time, so in a worst case scenario where everyone is unconscious, a device that can track the coordinates of the plane might be a useful security tool.

Airthinx is revolutionizing the Indoor Air industry with a low-cost professional air quality device, providing accurate & precise monitoring at room level of 9 air pollutants (PM 1.0, PM 2.5 and PM 10, Carbon Dioxide, Formaldehyde, Volatile Organic Compounds, Temperature, Pressure & Humidity). It’s simple to install, works directly out of the box, and has built-in 3G and wifi, so it is always connected to the cloud (even on a plane) and collecting data. For the first time, both health & safety personnel and pilots can have access to data anytime, anywhere from the web, iPad or phone, so they are best equipped to make real-time decisions.

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