Climate Control: Regulators Are Facing Heat Over Cabin Temperatures

One union is hoping data collected from its new app will put the heat on regulators to get cabin temperature just right.

While aerospace is a highly regulated industry, there aren’t actually any operating standards for cabin temperature in the United States, says Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the union that represents 50,000 flight attendants with 20 American airlines.

The general recommendation is that the cabin remains between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (18–24°C), to a maximum of 80 degrees (27°C) – or 85 (29°C) if all the in-flight entertainment systems are running – but it’s not official policy. And that’s something the AFA wants to change.

In July, the association released 2Hot2Cold, a mobile app that crew, as well as passengers, can use to record extreme cabin temperatures. Data collected from the app, which at press time had 5,000 downloads, is intended to support a petition the AFA submitted to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) requesting it create a rule to keep temperatures within acceptable levels, Garland says. “We need the data to force the DOT to take action.” The AFA even provided thermometers to its members to help in this endeavor.

Extreme temperatures aren’t just a matter of comfort, of course. Last summer a four-month-old baby was rushed to the emergency room after overheating aboard a United Airlines flight stuck on the tarmac in Denver, Colorado. This happened despite the DOT tarmac delay rule that stipulates airlines keep the temperature comfortable – “But [the rule] doesn’t define what ‘comfortable’ means,” Garland explains.

“We need the data to force the DOT to take action.” – Taylor Garland, Association of Flight Attendants

In a written statement, the Federal Aviation Administration says that cabin air quality is top of mind, but that it expects “operators to take appropriate action if a cabin temperature condition occurs on the ground that could potentially affect passenger safety.” The over 2,000 reports already collected from the app don’t all bear witness to extreme variances, but they can help indicate if there are issues with certain aircraft or airports.

On a hot day, for instance, the systems of an aircraft that’s soared to 90 degrees (32°C) while sitting on the ground won’t necessarily be able to recover fast enough, especially on short-haul flights. Generally, there are more issues with the smaller regional jets, whose auxiliary power unit systems simply don’t have the oomph to bring temperatures within acceptable levels quickly, Garland says.

“What we really want is for this rule to be put in place so that airlines and airports are forced to work together to prevent these extremes from occurring in the first place,” she says, adding that cabin crew do try to take steps to alleviate some of these issues. “If you’re used to hearing the flight attendants ask you to pull down the shades and open the vents above you when you land, that’s an effort to mitigate the [cabin] temperature on the ground.”

Climate Control was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.