Stopping In-Flight Bathroom Terrorism

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

NOW IT CAN BE REVEALED, specifically by Valérie Collet in the French paper Le Figaro in a piece entitled “The anti-terrorist struggle passes through airplanes’ toilets”:

For three weeks the toilets of French airline companies have been at the center of a genuine anti-terrorist combat undertaken with the greatest discretion.

What’s this all about? Well, you might remember those oxygen-masks that are supposed to drop from the panel above your seat on a jet airliner when cabin pressure drops for some reason. Ah, but what if you happen to be in the bathroom at the time? No worries, most advanced airliners have a system of chemically-fabricated oxygen located in that room’s false ceiling to take care of your breathing needs there.

Until now, that is. To the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that contraption in the bathroom is not just an oxygen system – it’s something there ready for cagey terrorists to set fire to, explode, and thereby bring down the plane. So it has to go.

Leaving aside for the moment here the technical validity of the FAA’s objection, the most impressive thing about this affair is the way that agency has shown it can impose its will on the rest of the world’s airliners. As Mme. Collet points out, there are 12,000 planes to which this directive applies flying for American and European companies alone, and many more beyond those that are based in Asia. Yet all of them – one assumes – want to have the capability to fly to the American market and therefore need to get rid of those bathroom oxygen devices. One reason it seems this matter is finally being brought to public attention in a French publication is that, surprisingly, the French are being particularly quick to accede to the FAA’s demands; whereas the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has left it up to national airline authorities to react to the FAA’s demands as they will, the French agency (the DGAC) decided at the beginning of the year to carry out the FAA’s instructions as quickly as possible.

OK, but where does that leave those unfortunates who find themselves caught in the bathroom during a depressurization? Such incidents are certainly not unheard-of: Mme. Collet cites here figures from the French pilots union that there have been 19 of them within the last eight months in European airspace alone, and when they happen, pilots know they’re supposed to descend as quickly as possible to an elevation where there’s enough air pressure for people to breathe normally (around 4,200 meters). But from the usual airline cruising altitudes of around 10,000 meters that takes at least three minutes or more – and, meanwhile, you’re certain to have people stuck in bathrooms, unable to breathe or really to do much at all (except hold on to that cabin’s roof) as the airplane finds itself in a steep dive.

At least they won’t be able to blow anything up, either. And that’s the important thing.

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