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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for January 16th, 2021

Film Review “Everybody Flies”

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I have not flown for nearly a year. My last trip was to New Orleans, in January last year. Looking back my usual pattern seems to be about 3 or 4 air trips a year, though in 2019 there was also only one flight as we had resolved to see more of our own province. But I have been on flights when there were odd smells in the cabin. I have not personally experienced a fume event but there are many.

The air in nearly every modern jet plane comes from the engines “bleed air”. The only exception is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which has a separate, electric powered compressor for cabin air. The air is also recirculated through a HEPA filter which removes things like germs. Unfortunately it is not fine enough to remove smaller particles and that is where the trouble starts. Every jet engine needs lubricant and every can of that lubricant carries a health warning. It contains Tricresyl Phosphate a mixture of three isomeric organophosphate compounds. The “fume events” occur when the bleed air gets contaminated by the leaking lubricant. It can also be contaminated by other fluids. The aircraft industry has known about the issue since the 1950s and has always downplayed it.

Pilots and other aircrew, flying all the time, are much more likely to experience a fume event than passengers – but there are now records of large numbers of events affecting both. Former BA pilot Tristan Lorraine had to give up flying due to ill health and retrained as a filmmaker. “Everybody Flies” is his examination of the increasing amount of evidence that the air in most aircraft is nothing like as safe as the aircraft makers and airlines would have you believe. What he presents in his documentary are the first hand experiences of crew and passengers and their subsequent health issues. There is also quite a lot of independent research now and academics saying things like “if you don’t know what the safe level of exposure is, then it should be zero”. Captain Lorraine is also spokesman for the leading global organisation dealing with the issue of contaminated aircraft cabin air: The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE).

The movie is gripping and the story has an eerie air of familiarity. The aviation industry is following the same playbook as the tobacco and asbestos industries used. Indeed one of the interviewees sounded like me. She had been trying to get her case into a courtroom. After 15 years she had to give up and declare bankruptcy. “They have far more money than I had” so they could spend more on delaying the process. Exactly the same message that lawyers gave me, more than once, when I felt I had a good case and a strong sense of injustice. The lawyers tended to agree that I had a strong case but “they have more money than you do.” Indeed one case was settled against me simply because that was cheaper than fighting it. There are also regulators. Usually government appointed bodies tasked with protecting the public and employees, but who have become entirely captive to the industry they are supposed to regulate. The National Energy Board protects the oil and gas industry and advances its interests, not those of society in general and certainly not the natural environment.

But the aviation industry also has to guard jealously its reputation for promoting safety. That has taken a big hit thanks to Boeing’s handling of the 737 MAX mess. Just as the automobile industry suffered from the VW cheating emissions systems – and the more recent Toyota scandal. Currently they are doing that by pretending that there is not a problem. This position is becoming untenable but has lasted 50+ years so far.

Everybody Flies” is “under consideration” for an Oscar and BAFTA. It already had a standing ovation at the Sundance Festival. Its release to theatres is delayed by COVID. I hope that it shows up on streaming services too. I feel very privileged to have been offered a review link – which, of course, I cannot share. But I do hope that you will get to see it soon. I also hope that you will click on the links I have provided for I am sure that there will be much more bafflegab and distraction before the industry as a whole moves towards acknowledging the problem and installing better air filters. Making a start on that now, while so many commercial aircraft are grounded makes a great deal of sense, but then that is never going to be the industry’s first concern.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 16, 2021 at 12:05 pm