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Bad air in the air

The pleasure long ago went out of air travel. Passengers expect little and are rarely disappointed. Most of us would settle for on-time departures and arrivals and adequate air to breathe. Airlines cannot control the weather and some of the other factors that cause delays, but they do control the air their passengers breathe.

To cut back on costs, airlines in this country are cutting back on fresh air. The bad air in the air, according to a New York Times report, is a result of a change in plane recirculation systems. Passengers and cabin crews on older planes breathe 100 percent outside air that is refreshed every three minutes. But models built after the mid-1980s use a mix that's half outside air and half recirculated air, sending new blasts into the cabin every six or seven minutes. The new circulation systems cost less to operate because they burn less fuel to cool the outside air, which heats up when it is drawn through the engines.

Pilots enjoy separate systems that refresh the cockpit air supply more frequently to keep sensitive equipment cool. But while pilots and their instrument panels are relatively pampered _ no one would quibble with giving the cockpit crew all the fresh air they need _ people in the rest of the plane have experienced headaches, nausea and other problems. The less often cabin air is replaced, the more exposure there is to passengers' respiratory ailments, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and fumes from cleaning agents, pesticides and other substances used to maintain the aircraft.

Government studies have pointed out these factors but also have described the difficulty of establishing a firm connection between cabin air and health, without knowing the condition of passengers before they board. Complaints from its members led the Association of Flight Attendants to commission a yet-to-be completed study on the subject.

Though airline officials are skeptical about a problem with cabin air quality, it shouldn't be difficult to agree that breathing half as much fresh air half as often is not an acceptable situation.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for making air travel as safe as possible, should require better circulation of cabin air. Fresh air shouldn't be an optional amenity, like a bag of peanuts or the in-flight movie.