Toxic fumes found on planes, flight crews want action

Pilots and flight attendants are reporting toxic fumes being released into planes. The accidental release of toxins has caused flight crew members to become sick and some hospitalized. A year later, some of those affected are still off work, looking for answers and want something done about it.

A month-long investigation by WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina revealed 30 US Airways aircraft in the last year have been affected.”I’m talking because I think passengers need to know,” said one veteran flight attendant to WBTV who came forward under the condition we protected her identity. “I felt like I had to come forward for the health of myself and my co-workers.”

Apparently, toxins produced from the oil in aircraft engines are the culprit. I’m thinking of that smell that fills the cabin as the plane prepares for departure. Airlines say it’s harmless. One US Airways pilot disagrees and is concerned.

“Toxins produced from oil in the aircraft engines have caused a lot of problems with our industry,” Captain Jame Ray, a spokesperson for the U.S. Airways Pilot Association and a working pilot told WBTV. “Pilots and flight attendants alike have been sent to the hospital on multiple occasions. Some remain in the hospital. We have pilots who have lost their FAA certificate because of exposure to these toxins. So it is certainly a concern we have.”

The investigation confirmed a January 2010 case where crew members were hospitalized and are still not back at work. Another case in November of 2010, ruled not toxic fumes but a power issue at the gate resulted in aircraft crew off work too.

Airline flight crew members interviewed were quick to point out that this sort of thing does not happen on every flight but that all airlines are affected. The issue seems to be more widespread than the risk of swine flu once was and as airlines regain a more healthy financial picture, others are digging in to this toxic fumes problem more.

Looking a bit deeper into the issue of toxic fumes found on planes, a 2009 survey of pilots and crew by the UK’s The Telegraph indicated that one in seven of 789 British airline staff surveyed had to take more than a month’s sick leave in the previous year.

Further investigation revealed “high levels of a dangerous toxin on several planes. Of 31 swab samples taken secretly from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, 28 were found to contain high levels of tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate contained in modern jet oil as an anti-wear additive, which can lead to drowsiness, respiratory problems and neurological illnesses.”

While all flights may not be affected, it happens with more frequency than one might imagine. Aerotoxic Syndrome’s YouTube channel stacks up evidence of these fume events longer than planes lined up at LAX on a Friday afternoon.

Plane crash caused by crocodile?

Any time I fly an African carrier my friends get worried. While some have good safety records like the ten safest airlines in Africa, others show an abysmal lack of basic care. Such was the case of the ill-fated Filair flight on August 25 that crashed into a house as it approached Bandundu city airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Twenty people were killed. Authorities claimed the airplane ran out of fuel, but the company said it was a technical problem.

The lone survivor of the crash tells a different tale, Juene Afrique reports. The unnamed survivor says a crocodile slipped out of a sports bag someone had brought as a carry on. The passengers panicked and rushed to the front of the plane, causing a weight imbalance that put the aircraft into a nosedive. The crocodile reportedly survived the crash only to be killed by a machete-wielding local when it emerged from the wreckage.

Whether this is true are not is hard to say. Juene Afrique is a respected news source, but eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, especially when it’s anonymous. The plane was a Soviet-era Let-410 like the one shown here. It only seats 19 passengers so it’s small enough that if everyone ran to one end it would have weight balance issues. Plus the pilot reportedly complained it was in bad condition. Congolese company Filair is one of many airlines banned from flying into the European Union thanks to its poor track record.

Yet if the crocodile tale is true it wouldn’t be one of a kind. An eerily similar incident of a crocodile in a plane happened on an EgyptAir flight last year. Luckily nobody was hurt that time.

[Image courtesy Mottld via Wikimedia Commons. Note that this is not a Filair plane but a Russian carrier]

Ask Gadling: You left something on the airplane

It’s not a good feeling, walking toward baggage claim or a connecting flight, and realizing you forgot an item on the plane. Especially if it’s something valuable, like a brand-new digital camera (not that that happened to me). Okay, it did. I flew Varig into Sao Paulo, and deplaned to catch a connection to Rio. I was halfway to the gate when I realized the camera was missing. I’d removed it from my carry-on to review my pictures mid-flight, and, because I was cracked out on Xanax to quell my aviophobia, forgotten to tuck it back into my bag.

Since I don’t speak Portuguese, it was difficult to explain to airport personnel what had happened, and ask if I could retrieve said camera. I also had a flight to catch, so time was of the essence. I never imagined I would actually be allowed to re-board, due to security measures. Here’s the scary part: the Varig personnel just waved me back onto the empty plane, and let me rip my row apart. I found the camera, made my Rio flight, and vowed never to Xanax and unpack again.

My being allowed back on a plane-unattended, no less-was a freak occurrence. Says flight attendant/Gadling contributor Heather Poole, “Most gate agents/airline personnel can’t help, unless you’ve JUST walked off the flight.”

What to do if you’ve left an item on the plane after you’ve walked away from the gate

Immediately check with the airline’s “airport/terminal lost and found”; that’s where most stuff ends up. Poole says that a passenger’s lost fake tooth once made its way to lost and found.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

If the item doesn’t turn up at lost and found at your destination airport, call the airline and ask where the airplane flew to next. Explains Poole, “There’s a chance it won’t be discovered until the next leg. An airline employee might also have picked it up, and will return it personally, or leave it at your hotel.” Poole herself did this with a $500 check she found inside a book left onboard (can you say “good karma?”).

Realize that policies will vary depending upon the carrier, type of aircraft, and where you happen to be, destination-wise.

Try not to appear frantic or act demanding. You don’t want to arouse suspicions, or piss anyone off. Just calmly state the problem, while making it clear the item is of value.

If you don’t speak the language, hopefully you have a phrasebook handy. I keep a list of emergency phrases to cover my butt in situations like this, so I have them at my immediate disposal. I write them on the inside cover of my phrase book. Lonely Planet also has excellent phrasebooks that contain sentences like “Help, I’ve lost my….” Sign language, as I discovered in Brazil, also works well in a left-item scenario.

Leave your name and contact information, as well as where you’ll be during your visit (if this pertains) with lost and found personnel, or any gate agents/airline personnel you personally speak to. Also get the name and phone number of the person you speak to at lost and found, so you can follow-up, if necessary.

How can I minimize the chances of leaving an item on the plane, or losing it permanently?

  • Unpacking your carry-on, or fiddling with devices while under the influence is a recipe for lost valuables. If you’re flying solo, tape a Post-it note to the seat back in front of you, reminding yourself to to collect everything before deplaning. Sure, you’ll look like an anal-retentive freak. But who cares, as long as you leave with all of your belongings?
  • Don’t stuff valuables in the seat back pocket, especially if under the influence. I always try to keep everything contained to my carry-on, which I stow beneath the seat in front of me. If you normally stash in overhead, keep a compact, reusable shopping bag on you (some have small clips so you can attach to your belt loop). You can put whatever you might need in-flight inside it, thus minimizing the chances of items going astray or falling into the maw of the seat back pocket.
  • Always ID tag carry-on valuables like cell phones, iPod’s, cameras, etc.. I use stick-on address labels; if you don’t want the whole world to know where you live, just put a cell phone number and email.
  • Even if you didn’t unpack anything in-flight, do a sweep of your seat and floor before deplaning. I’ve had items fall out of not-fully zipped, or elasticized pockets on my carry-on.

Lost and found contact numbers for major U.S. carriers

While researching this piece, I quickly discovered that many airlines don’t have a general number for lost and found. Most require you to fill out an online form, or report missing items in person at the destination airport.

United: 1-800-221-6903.

American Airlines: If I may put my two cents in (and I will), AA has the most idiotic lost and found/customer service policy. There is no general number, so you must “call the Lost and Found office of the specific airport to or from which you were traveling.” Which is awesome, because none of these offices are open 24 hours. When I called the Delayed Baggage number to explain who I was and what I was writing about, and if they could provide me with a general number to assist readers, I was told, “You can send a written letter to customer relations.” Thanks, AA. You rock.

Delta: Click here to report your missing item.

Continental: Click here to report your missing item.

Southwest: Report missing item in person within four hours at your destination.

Jet Blue: “Articles found onboard an aircraft will be placed in the JetBlue lost and found area of the destination city. You may call the JetBlue Baggage Service office at the airport to inquire about your lost item.”

Alaska: 1-800-25-7522, say “More options,” then “Baggage information.”

Frontier: Click here to report your missing item.

Virgin America: Contact one of these lost and found offices.

If you leave any item at any TSA security check, call 1-866-289-9673.

[Photo credits: electronics, Flickr user Burnt Pixel; cat, Flickr user dulcenea]

Galley Gossip: Traveling with children: a few suggestions…

There he is, the little monster. Yes, he’s an adorable little monster, but a monster nonetheless. Whether he’s traveling with you or he’s headed toward you, either way, he’s on the flight with you. Near you. I feel for you. Really, I do.

Traveling sucks, most of you will agree, but what’s even worse than traveling is traveling with children, even when it’s your own kid you’re traveling with. Why? Because the people around you give you the please-don’t-sit-by-me look. Because you’ve only got two hands. That’s it. One. Two. It’s not easy carrying the kid, the car seat, the stroller, the diaper bag (that’s been stuffed full of fun things things to do, causing it to weigh more than the kid and the car seat alone) while you’re doing whatever it is you have to do in order to keep the kid happy – and quiet – on-board an aircraft, surrounded by all those people giving you that look.

Like I said, traveling can suck, but you don’t have to let the stress of travel ruin your trip. Here are a few tips I’ve used when traveling with my own little two year-old monster who has flown once a month since he was three months old.

ARRIVE EARLY – The line at security just keeps getting longer now that summer is here, so give yourself a little extra time. And by God, check those bags, if you haven’t already, even if you have to pay that ridiculous bag fee. Why? Because it’s even more ridiculous struggling lug all that gear on the airplane where you’ll only end up even more frustrated and agitated when you find all those overhead bins full. So pack light, come early, and check the bags.

BE PREPARED – Don’t be surprised when TSA makes you toss that sippy cup full of milk and the bottle of water out of your diaper bag. No need to remind TSA the liquids are for your little princess. They already know. And yes, you AND the princess will need to remove your shoes – both of you – even if sweet pea is just four months old. Don’t get angry. It’s a waste of time. Just be ready when it happens. That means leave the liquids at home and start taking off those shoes and collapsing that stroller before it’s your turn to walk through the metal detector. No one likes standing in line behind the person who is not ready to go when it’s their time to go. So go! And after you pass through security, please don’t forget to purchase milk and water (and snacks if you didn’t bring any food from home) in the terminal before you board the flight. Chances are the flight attendants will run out of bottled water and food before they even reach your row.

TRAVEL TIME – Whatever you do, do not take the all-nighter when traveling with your perfect little angel who may not be so perfect on a flight at night. There’s nothing worse, or more stressful, than traveling with a screaming child, especially when everyone around you is trying to sleep. Me, I always book my flights during the day, during nap time. That way the kid can run around and wear himself out at home, before we have to head to the airport. Nine times out of ten my little cutie patootie will fall asleep on taxi out, allowing me (and whoever is seated in front of me) a few hours of quiet time. What parent doesn’t need a little quiet time?

DIAPER BAG – Oh sure I spent WAY too much on a designer diaper bag before my son was born, only to use the messenger style Diaper Dude my husband bought every single time we traveled – and didn’t travel. You’d be shocked at all I can fit in that one bag. All I can say is the style of the Diaper Dude makes traveling easy. Why? Because the messenger bag leaves hands free! That means your hands are available to do what they REALLY need to do – like take care of the child.

BABY SLING / WRAP – The Baby Bjorn made going through airport security completely do-able when I had to go it alone. With the kid attached to me, all I had to do was slide off my shoes (slip-ons when traveling with the kid) and throw them, along with the Diaper Dude, on the conveyor belt without asking a stranger for help, which is something you may not feel inclined to do when the stranger behind you is looking kind of…well…strange. Once on-board, use the sling when baby falls asleep. In other words, let the carrier hold the baby while your hands hold a book. NOTE: The sling cannot be worn on take-off or landing or anytime when the fasten seat belt sign is on.

SIT-N-STROLL – Best invention known to mankind – mankind with kids that is. Once through security, sit baby in the chair and start strolling to the gate. Baby rides like a king in his first class seat. When it’s time to board, roll the little prince onto the airplane and straight to your seat while passengers already seated oooh and ahhh at your precious bundle of joy. Once at your seat, retract the wheels and VOILA – the stroller is now a car seat! After the flight deploy the wheels and you’re off and rolling to baggage claim (you did check the bags, didn’t you?) and then it’s off to the car where once again you retract the wheels and VOILA – car seat again! NOTE: The SIT-N-STROLL does not fit down the aisle of a narrow body aircraft (S80, 737, 757), so if you’re traveling alone leave the SIT-N-STROLL at home, or just ask for help from the strange looking person behind you.

CARES (Child Aviation Restraint System) – The second best invention ever! If your child is at least one year-old and weighs 25 lbs, you can leave the car seat at home and use these simple straps that easily fit around the back of a seat and attach to the seat belt to keep your child safe.

RIDE ON CARRY ON – The third best invention ever! Would you believe the genius behind this was a flight attendant! Oh yeah. Who else but a flight attendant would come up with something so amazing? If you’ve got a roller-board and prefer traveling light, this is the contraption for you – and me! (Of course I already own one.) Just attach the “lawn chair” to the back of your rolling bag and off you go, as simple as that. Once on the flight the chair folds flush against your suitcase and fits perfectly into the overhead bin. Use the chair with CARES and your little one travels safe and sound while you’re off and running. NOTE: Be prepared for pointing and laughter as you sprint through the terminal with your little one attached to your bag.

DVD PLAYER – Never – I repeat – NEVER leave home without the DVD player. And don’t forget the charger. Pack it in your bag, the one that is going under the seat in front of you. Charge the DVD regularly. There are outlets in every airport. Oh and DVDs. Don’t forget to pack the DVDs, too! All I can say is thank God for the Teletubbies. La-La and friends have gotten us through over 35 flights – calm and peaceful flights.

BRING SOMETHING FUN TO DO: Coloring books, crayons, stickers, books, bring it all! Years ago a flight attendant told me that when she traveled with her son she always made sure to give him a small present each hour of flight in return for good behavior. Sure, you’re buying good behavior from a kid, a kid who should be well behaved to begin with, but sometimes kids act out, even the well behaved ones. Hey, kids are kids. And good behavior is worth every penny. Just ask the guy seated in front of you.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE PASSENGER IN FRONT OF YOU – I know you’re going to find this very hard to believe, but the person seated in front of you is not at all thrilled to be seated in front of you and your adorable child, no matter how cute the little munchkin is. Remember, it’s your job as a parent to be aware of what the little monkey is doing, so don’t let those feet kick the back of that chair, please! And stop those little hands from banging on the tray table, please! Sure, kids will be kids and can’t always be controlled, but you can try, can’t you? Please try. For the sake of the passenger in front of you. The passenger in front of you who is begging you. The passenger in front of you who is now begging me.

IGNORE THE ANGRY PASSENGER. Hey you, angry guy, they’re trying their best to keep the kid quiet, okay! Maybe those little ears hurt from the pressurization of the airplane, who knows. Don’t forget, you, too, were once a kid, and you were probably just as annoying as the crying kid seated behind you. Probably more so, based on the way you’re behaving now. Look, you’re not the only one who thinks traveling sucks. Just ask the little stinker stuck sitting behind you. The one that’s acting just like you!


Lasers cause havoc on Australian flights — soon to be outlawed

The latest terrorist weapon in Australia isn’t dirty bombs, oil attacks or hijackings. It’s lasers. New high powered lasers that have recently become widely available on the market are turning out to be a formidable tool in harassing pilots while on sensitive landing patterns.

When shined into a cockpit, these high powered devices can refract around the cabin, temporarily blinding crew and potentially damaging their vision. Opposed to older lasers commonly used in classrooms and during presentations, strong lasers have the ability to reach long distances, allowing attackers to strike from relatively long (and well covered) distances.

Here in the United States we’ve seen sporadic instances and subsequent prosecutions of laser strikes, but in Sydney the problem is starting to get out of hand. So far this year there have been six sightings of lasers in cockpits and the government is getting ruffled. They’re passing legislation to ban possession of high powered lasers without a reason, saying that they can now search and question perpetrators on why they own the devices.

Meanwhile, casual users from teachers to hobbyists are up in arms about the legislation, saying that not all lasers need to be banned from use. I suppose if more flights are safer and normal users can prove they’re using the lasers for the right purposes it’s not too big of a deal, is it?