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ATSB report on fumes and smoke in aircraft cabin air

(Please note, this matter is not currently being litigated in Australia)

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) along with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) released a joint report on 20 May 2014 entitled An analysis of fumes and smoke events in Australian aviation.

This investigation into the nature and impact of fumes and smoke related occurrences was prompted by increasing allegations that the air on board commercial aircraft contains harmful contaminants. As noted in our article of 6 December 2013, CASA established an Expert Panel on Aircraft Air Quality (EPAAQ) in 2008 for the purpose of examining air contamination occurrences. The EPAAQ’s report was released in 2011 and made several recommendations which were addressed by the ATSB and CASA in their 20 May report.

The ATSB and CASA conducted research from 2008-2012. Over the five year period, 2,276 fume and/or smoke related incidents were reported to the agencies. The research found that the most common sources of air contamination were from electrical failures, air conditioning, fumes from the galley ovens, food and coffee brewers and cleaning products. Bleed air contamination (a mixture of cabin air and fresh air that has been compressed by the aircraft’s engines to provide pressurised air inside the cabin) was also listed as a common source of fumes. Bleed air can become contaminated from leaking oils and fluids in the engine or if maintenance crews overfill the engines’ fluid reservoirs.

In total, 23 aircraft types were reported to have some sort of fuel or smoke related contamination event. Ten out of the twenty-three aircraft were reported to have more than 20 contamination incidents per 100,000 hours flown with 75% of the total incidents occurring on British Aerospace BAe 146 aircraft.

It should be noted that the top 10 aircraft types also included common Australian commercial aircraft including the Airbus A320 and A380, the Fokker 50 and 100 and Boeing 747-300.

The report found that over the 5 year period, one single flight crew incapacitation occurred and a further 11 minor injury events affected crew. In relation to the single flight crew incapacitation, the aircraft was able to land safely. Most of the incidents that occurred were of a minor nature and did not require any operational deviation of the aircraft, such as a flight cancellation, diversion or return.

The report made several recommendations in relation to fume and smoke surveillance. These included trend monitoring activities, data sharing between the ATSB and CASA, a suggestion to record smell type in occurrence records and a review of reporting procedures.

While no evidence of passenger injuries or harm due to cabin air contamination was found in the report, passengers should be aware that the research does not definitively rule out illness from cabin fumes and smoke.

Air passengers who note unusual smells or contaminants on board both Australian and international aircraft are invited to report those events to the airline concerned and to us. Our monitoring of these potentially dangerous occurrences is in the hope that further information will support our potential law reform efforts to request clearer rules around the prevention of such exposure to passengers and crews in future.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: May 25, 2014.

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