Why It's Still Stuffy On Your Plane

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At last, vindication for everyone who's ever traced a nagging headache or nasty cold back to a long airplane trip: Last week, the National Research Council presented a 246-page report to Congress detailing exactly how much we don't know about the air we breathe when we take to the skies — just in time for the holiday travel season.

After collecting and analyzing air quality data for a year, the NRC (part of the National Academy of Sciences) pointed an accusatory finger at Capitol Hill, concluding the feds do too little to monitor and enforce indoor air standards. The FAA, which is ostensibly in charge of maintaining healthy air systems within planes, sets guidelines most pilots and flight attendants find too lenient, and which are rarely checked, according to the report. While poor air circulation could contribute to inadvertent germ-sharing among passengers, there are other pollutants that concern scientists more. Potential dangers include high levels of headache-inducing carbon monoxide, dangerously reduced cabin pressure, ozone pollution and the presence of pesticides.

How can you tell if the plane you're boarding has healthy air in circulation? You can't. Current systems for analyzing air quality are "woefully inadequate," according to NRC investigators. That, of course, is bad news for travelers, especially as we head into one of the busiest times at airports around the country. While the report's findings shouldn't scare anyone off their upcoming travel plans, passengers with a history of cardiac or respiratory diseases or traveling with infants may want to run their itinerary past a doctor, just to be safe.

Meanwhile, a beleaguered FAA has pledged to take "a long, hard look" at the NRC report. While the agency won't promise any immediate changes — the mere possibility of problems isn't enough to prompt action —they say they may instate more rules — or commission yet another report.