From pilot fatigue to the water you drink onboard, what you should be aware of before catching a flight
The average airline passenger knows little about the tangles of procedure, technology and bureaucracy involved in the daily operations of a commercial airline. And for the most part, ignorance is bliss. After all, if getting from point A to point B as safely as possible is your main concern, you can rest assured that the U.S. commercial aviation system is among the safest in the world (your chances of dying in an airplane crash in the U.S. is calculated to be one in 13 million). But when it comes to the air you breathe onboard, the coffee you drink and the potentially very tired pilots flying your plane, there are some things the airlines prefer to keep to themselves.
Your captain and crew are often exhausted
Along with inadequate training, pilot fatigue was a factor during the investigation of the catastrophic Buffalo, N.Y., accident in February 2009, when a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air crashed, killing all 49 people onboard and one on the ground. Pilots and crew will tell you that reporting to work after limited sleep and long on-duty hours is an all too common occurrence in the airline industry.
"The issue of flying tired is probably the largest threat to safety that occurs in the industry," says a captain for a major U.S. airline, who wishes to remain anonymous. "A lot of fatigue occurs after working a 14-plus hour day, followed by eight hours of 'rest' that includes transportation to and from the hotel, eating, sleeping, showering and having breakfast the next morning. It actually equates to about five hours of sleep, on a good night."
Under current FAA rules, pilots can be scheduled to be on duty for up to 16 hours, eight of which can be flying hours. "On many occasions, I have had a 14-hour day with eight hours 'rest', followed by another 14- or 15-hour day," says the captain.
Another longtime pilot for a U.S. carrier concurs, recalling a recent hop from the Caribbean to New York that involved a delay that led to him being on duty for 15.5 hours that day. "I had literally less than eight hours at the hotel [at the flight's destination] because it's 25 minutes there and 25 minutes back ... we were pretty well exhausted that whole next day."
As for the passengers on his plane, how many of them would have thought twice about boarding if they had known how tired their pilot was?
Your coffee might be made from bacteria-ridden water
Coffee and tea served in-flight are made from water pumped into the airplane's holding tanks by municipal sources at airports around the country. In effect, water from many different cities and sources mixes together in these tanks as the planes refill upon landing at new airports. Most passengers are unaware that the water used to make their coffee (even that highly touted Starbucks brew) is the same stuff that comes out of the lavatory sinks.
According to its website, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for "safe drinking water, both from your tap and on airplanes." But a 2004 survey by the EPA found many aircraft water systems out of compliance with national primary drinking water regulations designed to apply to traditional stationary water systems.
Because airlines fly to various destinations and are allowed to board water where they land, variations exist in maintenance of the equipment used to deliver the water to the plane (carts, hoses, trucks). And airlines claim that compliance with the EPA's rules for traditional water systems is not feasible. When the EPA tested water from the galleys and lavatories in 327 aircrafts, 15 percent tested positive for total coliform bacteria. And while coliform itself is not indicative of a health risk, its presence in drinking water "indicates that other disease-causing organisms may be present in the water system," according to the EPA.
"The EPA considers this [the 15 percent positive result] to be a high percentage of positive samples," it says on its website and advises passengers with compromised immune systems to opt for canned or bottled beverages when flying.
In 2002, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal tested 14 commercial flights and found bacteria levels tens and sometimes hundreds of times in excess of government limits. What was in those water samples? Such unsavory specimens as salmonella and tiny insect eggs. Gulp.
A new Aircraft Drinking Water Rule was signed in 2009 by the EPA to ensure safe and reliable drinking water for passengers and crew. It goes into effect in 2011. But how concerned should you be in the meantime?
Says one flight attendant about galley water: "I know it tastes funny because the water tank is filled at each station, meaning water from different cities gets mixed together. And I know a lot of people won't drink it. I also know a ton of flight attendants who've been drinking it for years. Me? No thank you. I'll take a diet soda if we've run out of [bottled] water."
Chemicals from the engine can make their way into cabin air
Who hasn't flinched, imagining all the germ-laden particles hurtling through the air when a fellow passenger has a coughing fit? Air inside an airplane cabin is circulated side to side rather than from the front of the plane to the back, which means you're breathing the same air as the passengers next to you throughout your flight. It's not a big deal out in the wide world of constantly renewing fresh air, but on an airplane you're breathing a mix of fresh air and re-circulated cabin air that gets staler the longer the flight.
As it turns out, however, there's more to worry about than whether the sneezing passenger next to you is contagious. In 2009, an undercover investigation by Swiss and German TV networks found contaminated air was a problem in 28 of 31 samples taken from inside cabins. The studies found high levels of a toxin called tricresyl phosphate, a chemical used in modern jet oil with effects that include everything from drowsiness and headaches to neurological problems.
Air enters airplane cabins through a "bleed air" system whereby hot air is drawn from the compressor area of the engines and then cooled before entering the cabin. There, it mixes with re-circulated air that passes through filters designed to remove bacteria and other infectious particles. If there are engine oil or hydraulic fuel leaks in the engines and the air passing through that area comes into contact with vapors from these chemicals, this may contaminate the air supply inside the plane, since filters cannot remove the toxins. Another noteworthy tidbit -- those long delays when your airplane is parked at the gate or a remote parking spot waiting for takeoff is when the air in the cabin is likely to be the most fetid. Since the engines are turned off during this time, fresh air is not circulating into the cabin as it is during flight.
Fewer checked bags means more sandbags in the cargo hold
Next time the pilot makes an announcement that you're being delayed at the gate while a few extra bags are loaded below, consider what might be being hoisted into the cargo holds instead. Adding sandbags to correct weight and balance in an airplane by providing ballast and redistributing weight has long been a common practice in the airline industry. But ever since the new checked bag fees were introduced on many airlines, with fewer passengers checking bags as a result, there's been an upturn in the need to add ballast before takeoff, particularly on smaller commuter flights that are more sensitive to weight issues.
"The weight balance of the aircraft is set up to where they're usually expecting a certain amount of bags to balance out the plane," explains the captain for a major U.S. airline. "So if we have 50 passengers on board, we expect 50 bags and that offsets the weight of the passengers and balances out the aircraft to give it the right center of gravity for take off.
"But what happens now, with charging so much for bags, is that people carry on so there's a weight balance problem. Because of that we end up carrying sometimes 500 or 600 pounds of sand bags to even us out."
The lavatories are even nastier than you thought
Next time you consider heading into the lavatory in your socks -- or worse, bare feet -- reconsider that move. Quick turnarounds mean there is hardly time for more than a cursory wipe-down of the facilities before the next passengers are invited to board.
In his book The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D., put lavatories on commercial jets to the test. He found E. coli contamination everywhere, from the faucets to the doorknobs. And the folks who face onboard bathrooms on a daily basis see them in a similarly unclean light.
"When it comes to lavs, they are just nasty," says our anonymous captain. "They should be serviced and drained after every flight but usually are not. It [cleaning] happens maybe every three or four flights at my airline."
He also reveals that aircraft cabins on his airline are similarly unkempt when it comes to deep cleaning practices.
"Every flight, the trash comes out and each night there's maybe a quick vacuum and lav wipe down but that's about it," he says. "We got a memo recently about planes getting cycled into a deep cleaning every once in a while, but I have no idea how often."
We suggest you board with your hand sanitizer at the ready.