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Highlights

Over the years, the traveling public, flight attendants, and the medical community have raised questions about how airliner cabin air quality contributes to health effects, such as upper respiratory infections. Interest in cabin air quality grew in 2003 when a small number of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) infections may have occurred on board aircraft serving areas that were experiencing outbreaks of the disease. In 2001, a National Research Council report on airliner cabin air quality and associated health effects recommended that additional research be done on the potential health effects of cabin air. GAO reviewed what is known about the health effects of cabin air, the status of actions recommended in the 2001 National Research Council report, and whether available technologies should be required to improve cabin air quality.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To help ensure that FAA's research and surveillance efforts on airliner cabin air quality answer critical outstanding questions about the nature and extent of potential health effects of cabin air quality on passengers and flight attendants, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop a detailed plan for the research and surveillance efforts,including key milestones and funding estimates, in accordance with generally accepted practices for oversight and independence.
Closed - Implemented
FAA's Center for Excellence for Airliner Cabin Environment Research was established in August 2004 in response to the GAO recommendation. A fully integrated research plan was developed to study issues concerning cabin air quality. Research proposals have been submitted against that plan to address all of the congressionally mandated concerns. Of the $15M appropriated in FY 04 and 05, $13M has been committed to carry out the approved research proposals.
Department of Transportation 2. To help ensure that FAA's research and surveillance efforts on airliner cabin air quality answer critical outstanding questions about the nature and extent of potential health effects of cabin air quality on passengers and flight attendants, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to appoint a committee of acknowledged experts in the fields of aircraft ventilation and public health, including representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to assist in planning and overseeing the research and surveillance efforts recommended by the National Research Council in 2001.
Closed - Implemented
Invitations have been extended to subject matter experts to participate on an Advisory Board for the Airliner Cabin Environment Research program. EPA, NIOSH, and CDC have been invited to participate. The first meeting of the ACER is planned for August 2005.
Department of Transportation 3. To help ensure that FAA's research and surveillance efforts on airliner cabin air quality answer critical outstanding questions about the nature and extent of potential health effects of cabin air quality on passengers and flight attendants, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to leverage the findings of international research on airliner cabin air quality to inform FAA's surveillance and research efforts.
Closed - Implemented
FAA's Cabin Environmental Quality Technical Group has been established. This technical group is subordinate to the FAA/EU Joint Aviation Authority/Transport Canada Civil Aviation Research and Development Joint Coordinating Committee. The FAA is participating in forums such as the International Aero Industry Conference on Contaminated Air Protection, Air Safety and Cabin Air Quality at the Imperial College of London held in April 2005. Close liaison with the British Building Research Establishment continues.
Department of Transportation 4. To help ensure that FAA's research and surveillance efforts on airliner cabin air quality answer critical outstanding questions about the nature and extent of potential health effects of cabin air quality on passengers and flight attendants, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to report to Congress annually on the progress and findings of the research and surveillance efforts and funding needs.
Closed - Implemented
The appropriation legislation sets forth an initial reporting requirement for initial research and surveillance efforts. FAA submitted the initial report to Congress on July 25, 2006. In June 2005 FAA told us that subsequent annual reporting will begin to ensure Congress is fully and effectively informed of research and surveillance results. However, FAA now states that it does not plan on doing annual updates since this is not required by legislation. FAA also noted that continued research is dependent on continued annual funding from Congress
Federal Aviation Administration 5. In order to help improve the healthfulness of cabin air for commercial aircraft passengers and cabin crews, the FAA Administrator should assess the costs and benefits of requiring the use of HEPA filters on commercial aircraft with ventilation systems that recirculate cabin air. If FAA chooses to require the use of HEPA filters, it should also ensure that the regulation covers the maintenance requirements for these filters.
Closed - Implemented
An FAA economist completed the report on the cost and benefits of requiring the use of HEPA filters on commercial aircraft with ventilation systems that recirculate cabin air. The report was published in June 2006. According to FAA, the report does not support retro-fitting HEPA filters onto older aircraft that currently do not have them. The estimated cost would be $21.3 million with an annual recurring cost of $1.5 million. An FAA official also stated that FAA has also initiated a HEPA filter analysis research project with Kansas State University through the Airliner Cabin Environment Research Program, but this study is delayed due to a lack of congressional funding.
Federal Aviation Administration 6. In addition, to increase access to information on the health risks related to air travel, the FAA Administrator should direct the staff responsible for the FAA Web site to improve the links to other Web sites containing this information. The Administrator should also consult with medical associations and health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on other ways to increase the dissemination of this information.
Closed - Implemented
FAA improved its web site access of health and safety information to the traveling public, which is readily available on FAA's main page under the heading "Passengers." The current Passenger Health and Safety Section contains numerous downloadable documents, reports, and links to other Web sites that provide comprehensive information on health and safety issues in aviation.

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