I'm sure it comes as no news that spending time in a sealed, pressurized aluminum tube at high altitude is probably not the most healthful thing you can do to your body. For that reason, one would think that fliers might have something to say about the quality of the air up there.
Actually, they don't. That fact was highlighted in a study by a panel of experts from across the aviation industry, according to a recent Wall Street Journal  article by Scott McCartney. He noted that the report came out a year ago. In that intervening year, neither regulators nor the airlines have acted on the report's recommendations.
McCartney also noted that more than 10 years ago the aviation industry asked a panel of industry engineers to check into the issue of bad air on planes. The panel found that the quality of cabin air wasn't as poor as a lot of people thought. That is, so long as the plane's air circulation system is on. Frequent fliers can attest to the reality that air quality is often worse when an airliner just sits on the tarmac. It is surprising how quickly air quality can deteriorate once the cabin air circulator is shut down.
What's left unsaid by that report McCartney cites is who gets to determine what is the minimum level of air quality. If I had a vote, I'd set the minimum well above the borderline of the unacceptable zone. I understand that it is easy to say that passengers have a right to decent air quality in the cabin. It is another thing altogether for the airlines to acknowledge that. The reason is simple — cost. It costs money to turn on the air circulation system when the plane is on the ground. Six years ago the FAA told the airlines that they ought to disembark passengers if a plane sits on the ground for more than 30 minutes after the air circulation equipment is shut off. Unfortunately, that's an FAA advisory, not a rule.
Good air quality isn't a service, it's a right. Airlines ought not to be seeking to cut costs by pushing the envelope with passengers' health. The problem from the airlines' vantage point is that their business model is not a very elastic one, so they need to seek out every possible way to slash expenses. They will also resist changes that add to their costs.
As with other standards that passengers don't consider optional or subject to a service fee, passengers need to keep the airlines honest about basic cabin air quality levels. You and I have to be vocal about what service cuts we find acceptable. The FAA may have weighed in and a respected industry panel may have had its say, but since neither of those have established a rule for the airlines to follow, it's up to us to be speak out.
If air quality on your flight gets to the point where it's downright uncomfortable, you need to tell the cabin crew. You need to say something when you get off the plane and you need to write something when you get back to your computer. Several hundred unhappy, Twittering passengers will be more influential than any lobbying group, and certainly their impact will be felt a lot more forcefully than the advisories of the regulators whose job it is to stand up for the interests of fliers.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com