For some air travelers, the only thing worse than spending hours crammed into a tiny seat aboard a jetliner is spending the rest of the trip shivering from extreme cold or sweating from extreme heat inside the cabin.
It’s part of a campaign launched this week by flight attendants to persuade the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to set standards on cabin temperatures. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA argues that working in an aircraft whose temperature can reach extremes is not only uncomfortable but also potentially harmful.
The group cited instances when extreme temperatures threatened people’s health, such as when several passengers became ill while sitting in a plane in Las Vegas in 2013. In June 2017, an infant became unresponsive and was hospitalized after cabin temperatures climbed while a Denver flight waited on the tarmac for takeoff. The child’s mother — who later described the scary event for Fortune — said the aircraft had become “an oven with wings.”
Those are just the examples that received media attention. The DOT petition says many others have been documented in flight reports filed by aircrews, including one where cabin temperatures hit 99 degrees and forced the captain to divert the flight. In another instance, an overheated flight attendant blacked out during a flight, the document says.
Packing ever more people into planes has only aggravated the effect of extreme temperatures, the union says. By creating a new rule, the DOT would add cabin temperature to the list of safety priorities ahead of departure times or fuel costs. The effort has the backing of the AFL-CIO, which represents several million flight attendants, pilots, mechanics and others, and TWU Local 556, which represents 16,000 flight attendants at Southwest Airlines.
Airlines for America (A4A), a lobbying group for the industry, says creating a federal rule on cabin temperatures is unnecessary.
“The safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is the industry’s number one priority,” A4A said in a written statement. “U.S. airlines work hard to maintain a level of comfort passengers expect on each and every flight, including the temperature of the cabin . . . flight attendants work together with pilots to request a warming or cooling of the aircraft in accordance with individual company procedures, and any temperature control issues that arise are immediately dealt with on a case-by-case basis with the maintenance teams at each airline.”
An A4A spokeswoman also noted in an email that the airlines are unfamiliar with the app, which raises another point. It’s not clear how valuable the app’s data is going to be, given that collecting temperature readings from the public depends on whether a passenger happens to be carrying a thermometer and knows how to read it accurately. In general, those are not high on a traveler’s list of stuff to pack. Data collection also depends on the honor system.
While monkeying around with the new app, I wondered what would happen if I reported that the temperature aboard Delta Flight No. 1726 from Washington Reagan National Airport to Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday reached 212 degrees Fahrenheit. I was not aboard that flight, of course, which would be a good thing, because at that temperature I’d also be dead. Would the app accept that data? It appears it did. So far, all I received from the app was a thank-you for submitting the data.
Still, it’s a worthy effort by flight attendants. In the meantime, flight attendants will also be taking temperatures themselves, using approximately 60,000 keychain thermometers that were distributed this week among the crews of 23 airlines and filing reports through the app.
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