New Position Paper on Cabin Fumes

The International Federation of Airline Pilots (IFALPA) is a global nonprofit organization that includes the majority of pilots’ unions. The Dutch Association of Airline Pilots (VNV) has been a member of this organization since its inception (VNV was one of the co-founders). IFALPA thus represents more than 110,000 pilots from over 70 countries. IFALPA’s mission is: “To promote the highest level of aviation safety worldwide and to be the global advocate of the piloting profession; providing representation, services, and support to both our members and the aviation industry.”

In December 2018, IFALPA published a Position Paper and a Briefing Leaflet on Cabin Fumes. In this document, IFALPA acknowledges the existence of Fume Events and the danger of “pilot incapacitation” as a result, while briefly mentioning “potential short and long-term health effects.” In this Position Paper, IFALPA advocates for the design of bleed air-free aircraft (such as the B787 Dreamliner), stricter compliance oversight in the regulation of contaminated bleed air, crew training, the development and implementation of a medical protocol for use after a Fume Event, and the development and installation of filters and sensors. Finally, they note that “more research is needed on the long-term health effects of Fume Events.”

Now, five years later (October 2023), IFALPA has issued an update to this Position Paper and its associated Briefing Leaflet. It is interesting to note the differences in wording between the two publications.

  • In 2018, there was only mention of “occasional leaks from the hot section and/or APU” resulting in a Fume Event. In the new document, it is now (finally!) recognized that there is ALWAYS (some) oil leakage in daily operations. The seals (oil seals of the bearings) do minimize this leakage but cannot entirely prevent it, especially during low-power operation and power transients.
  • In addition to the threat to flight safety due to incapacitation resulting from a Fume Event, there is now also “growing concern” that “exposure to fumes can result in long-term health damage.”
  • Crews need to be trained to recognize a Fume Event and respond appropriately.
  • There is an emphasis on the implementation of a “comprehensive, standardized, and efficient Medical Protocol.” This includes a reference to the Medical Protocol published earlier this year.
  • In addition to focusing on the installation of bleed air filters and detection equipment, there is now also a push for the development and global use of new TCP-free oil types.

All in all, we see a cautious shift in the stance of aviation parties. From an attitude of “no causal link proven, more research needed,” and therefore doing as little as possible, to a tentative acknowledgment that “there does seem to be something going on” and that preventive measures may be wise. In their latest publication, IFALPA is significantly more explicit about flight safety risks, the need for training and reporting, the need for the installation of bleed air filters and sensors, and a robust medical protocol. Apparently (and fortunately!), there is some “evolving insight.” Hopefully, this trend continues, and we can expect a safer environment in the not too distant future for both flight crews and ground personnel, as well as passengers.