Toxic fumes appear to leak into airplane cabins more often than reported: LA Times

While there are no official records of how often toxic vapors leak into airplane cabins, it appears to happen more often than previously thought, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

The newspaper studied NASA safety reports from between January 2018 and December 2019 and found 362 so-called fume events that required medical attention for almost 400 people. This included nearly 50 pilots who were left unable to perform the functions of their job.

Recent research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health suggests such statistics are likely the “tip of the iceberg” because they came from voluntary sources, according to the Times.


A reliable count of how many such events occur is all but impossible currently, as no government agency keeps track of them.

Such events have continued even as most passengers have begun wearing cloth masks or N95 respirators amid the coronavirus pandemic, including a single week in August when JetBlue had fume events on two separate flights to Boston and Orlando.

Airlines have long asked Boeing to install air sensors on their planes, according to the Times, but the company has decided against it, fearing the data would be used in court, according to communications obtained by the newspaper.

“Flight attendant, pilot unions, and congressional supporters could use this effort as evidence that sensors are needed and … to drive their agenda forward to have bleed air sensors required on all aircraft,” Boeing said in a 2015 memo, according to the newspaper.

“The industry is concerned about liability, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is protecting the industry,” Judith Anderson of the Association of Flight Attendants union told the Times.

The FAA has publicly said fume events are uncommon and that air on planes is higher quality than that on the ground, and recently said research indicates there are fewer than 33 events per 1 million flights. However, a 2015 Kansas State University funded by the agency found the rate at about 1 of every 5,000 flights, according to the Times.