Interview: Is Air Travel Toxic Asks Tristan Loraine In His Controversial Documentary “Everybody Flies”
Tristan Loraine’s Everybody Flies looks at never-before-seen documentation, scientific facts, and personal testimonies relating to the controversial issue of cabin air quality to ask the question: is the air we breathe on board a plane safe?
Tristan Loraine’s feature documentary asks the question: is the air we breathe on board a plane safe? It’s a question we might have considered in passing before but for the wrong reasons. This isn’t an investigation into whether or not the coughing passenger’s common cold is being redistributed to everyone on board. Rather, this is a more disturbing look at perhaps the airline industry’s biggest secret.
Aptly titled Everybody Flies, the film reveals compelling details every air traveller has a vested interest in. Premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in September, Loraine, who produces and co-directs with Beth Moran, discloses never-before-seen documentation, scientific facts, and personal testimonies relating to the controversial issue of cabin air quality.
The problem, says Loraine, is “bleed air”. This is the process from which passengers get their breathable air on a plane. It is produced (on all currently flying commercial jet aircraft except the Boeing 787) in the compression section of the engines and then sent, unfiltered, to the cabin. Left unaddressed for decades – but known to the industry – this air can allegedly become contaminated by toxic chemicals which are produced when the engine’s lubricating oils are heated.
The airline industry allegedly knows the problem exists but won’t admit to it
A former pilot who spent a number of years as a Captain for British Airways, Loraine had to retire early (at the age of 44) due to ill heath related to this contaminated air. It was a career that had seen him fly 10,000 hours on a variety of commercial jet airliners such as the Locheed L-1011, Boeing 737, 757 and 767. He even flew Concorde before it was retired.
He believes measures can be taken to protect passengers but the aviation industry continues to withhold vital information and collectively denies that it is a problem. The filmmaker reveals that no published inhalation toxicity data exists in the public domain yet risks associated with oil-related toxic chemicals in the air are widely documented and therefore highlight the fundamental problem.
Why are we unaware of air toxicity on board aircraft?
Despite his love of flying, his career is one now awash with bittersweet memories. After losing his career, Tristan retrained as a filmmaker and set up his production company Fact Not Fiction Films in 2006. He was inspired, he explains, to tell his story as well as highlight other instances of social injustice.
“Cinema offers a unique opportunity to tell a story to a captivated audience and hopefully bring change to issues that need resolving,” Loraine said. “After we finished the feature ‘A Dark Reflection’ we wanted to make a documentary to show the public what the airlines and Government are not telling them. By informing the public, hopefully their voice will help take us closer to resolving the issue. I am yet to meet an airline shareholder who would not want clean air to breathe.”
Around 11 million people fly across the globe every day. Most are unaware that the air in the cabin may contain dangerous toxins. Loraine, who spent a decade as co-chair of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE), has built a body of evidence that includes crew member and passenger testimony as people reveal publicly for the first time the unspoken consequence of flying.
The contaminated air is often completely undetectable. Like carbon monoxide, it is mostly odourless and colourless. In extreme cases, passengers and crew have described a smell similar to a wet dog, dirty sock or gymnasium, while there are instances when smoke has filled the cabin.
The Everybody Flies co-director explains DHL Boeing 757 cargo planes are now fitted with carbon filters to ensure the air their pilots breathe is clean. These filters should now be standard on commercial flights, argues Loraine.
An industry-wide cover-up?
I ask, should we be worried if we travel on aircraft just a few times per year, particularly in light of the film’s arguments being backed up by multiple sources? The former pilot’s reply is unsettlingly grave. He examples the case of Joanne Turner in 2010. “She was a passenger on a flight and had one bad exposure and it ruined her health – it took 16 years of legal action before the High Court of Australia upheld a ruling that inhaling heated engine oil fumes is harmful to the lungs.”
And Loraine goes further, adding that the effect is not just long-term but multi-generational. “Scientists are now talking about epigenetic effects of exposure to organophosphates – that’s effects that come some generations later. These chemicals should never be allowed to contaminate the breathing air as we do not know what the long term effects will be. If an oil/hydraulic fluid manufacturer says ‘Do not breath mist of vapour from heated product’ or ‘suspected of causing cancer’ why are we exposing people? Especially the unborn?”
It astounds me that we – as passengers – appear to be largely – and blissfully – unaware of these dangers. It’s as if the industry as a whole is covering it up. Sadly, during his investigation, Loraine found evidence to that effect, alleging the UK airline Head Doctor was seeking to influence Government. So strong is the director’s argument, his follow-up film American 965 will concentrate on such cover ups.
“We have a sequel to this film about the American Airlines 965 crash of 1995. We have discovered amazing evidence that the investigators never looked at. They say it was pilot error but I believe there is far more to it,” says Loraine distressingly.
No longer can “aerotoxic syndrome” be brushed under the carpet
The health effects – known as “aerotoxic syndrome” – led to seventeen former and serving British airlines cabin crew taking legal action for not addressing the issue of contaminated air. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) figures show that between 2010 and 2015 they received over 1,300 reports of smoke or fumes inside a large passenger aircraft operated by a British airline.
When the BBC looked into these claims in 2015 it noted bleed air “did not pose a health risk in itself” but that in some cases campaigners believe potential faults in the engine seals can lead to air becoming toxic. British airlines and CCA default to the argument: “no scientific evidence … shows [aerotoxic syndrome] exists”. That said, following a report from the Committee on Toxicity in December 2013, CAA said in a statement that “a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible long-term health effects … cannot be excluded.”
Everybody Flies, which took around 4 and a half years to make (mainly due to funding), features the combination of 18 years of research distilled into 97 minutes of film. Loraine’s hope is that it will have a profound impact on an industry he has been holding to account for over a decade.
But while he would welcome viable changes to regulation and safety protocol in future, the damage for many has already been done. “The airlines don’t mention it in the in-flight magazine or pre-flight briefing and aviation regulators and government look the other way. Just like the early days of Thalidomide or Asbestosis.”
Everybody Flies had its world premiere at Raindance Film Festival in 2019.