‘Huge Favor’ to Airlines Ordering Emergency Oxygen Removed From Lavatories

Emergency oxygen canisters were recently ordered removed from aircraft lavatories by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency asserts a would-be terrorist in the lavatory could tear through the ceiling panel and retrieve the canister for nefarious purposes.

The FAA has ordered emergency oxygen removed from airliner lavatories.

The FAA has ordered emergency oxygen removed from airliner lavatories.

Not a peep from the airlines about the loss of emergency oxygen to innocent passengers.

By taking out the generators, passengers who are in a lavatory during a rapid decompression event will not be able to use the oxygen mask that drops from the overhead. They will have to run out of the lavatory – in the middle of a confusing emergency situation – back to their seats. If the depressurization was caused by a hole in the fuselage, loose objects will be flying about the cabin before they are sucked out the hole.

Members of the flying public are not persuaded of the FAA’s action, as evidenced by these reactions:

“Can’t these canisters be redesigned so they are tamper-proof? That would be the logical requirement.”

“I would think they could try to ruggedize the door that protects the canister.”

“Assuming that a terrorist could get tools, plastic bags, and some flammable liquids aboard, they could make up a bundle – with the [oxygen] generator inside, and then trigger it off. [The terrorist] would suffer dying like everyone else, so it’s only a suicide weapon. The real problem is an economic one. These airplanes were designed with a minimum consideration of security and anti-tampering. So rather than redesign and refit all the aircraft to better protect these devices from unauthorized access, the FAA merely did the airlines a huge favor (as usual) and allowed their removal.”

 “Move the generator out of the [lavatory] and into an area where tampering would be noticed. Like, just leave the [oxygen] tube going to the [lavatory].”

“FAA kept it under wraps until it was a done deal! ‘To protect the public’ or to KEEP THEM IN THE DARK? I wonder why ANYONE FLIES ANYMORE!”

“Someone should be able to sue the FAA if this [action] gets someone killed.”

“Surely this will make all these [U.S. registered] aircraft fail the airworthiness test of other countries.”

“The pilots have their own independent air supply that’s not a chemically generated system. So why can’t the toilets have a similar supply, activated only in emergencies and not subject to local tampering? They’ve got water lines going to these [lavatories]. And electricity for lighting. Hmmm. Maybe those could be misused as a weapon, somehow. Better replace [the water and electricity] with moist towelettes, chemical toilets and glow sticks. Now everyone is totally safe …”

The italicized quote above seems to be the real reason for the FAA’s secretive and peremptory action. Some individuals cited above suggest options for providing emergency oxygen safely, without the security risk. Not mentioned is that new technology could replace the oxygen canisters now used, which have their roots in emergency breathing devices aboard submarines. For example, pressure swing adsorption (PSA) technology would provide emergency oxygen without the risk posed by canisters. A small, briefcase size PSA device could be installed in the lavatory and activated either by a drop in pressure or by a cockpit switch. (See Aviation Safety Journal, “Emergency Oxygen Need Not Come From a Chemical Canister”)

Simply removing emergency oxygen from lavatories is the least-cost option for the airlines, but it is also the course that leaves open the safety issues for installing the lavatory generators in the first place. With respect to safety being the FAA’s “job 1”, the agenda seems to be one of increasing the difficulties for terrorists while doing nothing for passengers.