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11 March 2011

FAA orders the removal of lavatory oxygen generators

The FAA recently ordered all US airlines to remove or disable any chemical oxygen generator installed in an airliner lavatory. According to the FAA, this action was done to deal with a potential security threat, but the action also leaves passengers vulnerable to injury if there are in a lavatory during a loss of cabin pressure. Below are some additional details on what this change means to the average passenger.

What did the FAA order?
According to an FAA press release from 10 March 2011, the FAA ordered all airlines to disable or remove chemical oxygen generators from airliner lavatories. These actions were completed on March 4th. Further details are available in Airworthiness Directive (AD)

Why did the FAA do this?
Because this is a security related decision, it is unlikely that the general public will be told the reasons why. It is unlikely that this order came because of a newly discovered plot to use these generators to threaten an aircraft. The order was given to the airlines last month, and only became known to the public this week.

Chemical oxygen generators provide emergency oxygen to a passenger through a chemical reaction. This reaction produces both oxygen and heat, and one or both of these products of the chemical reaction may have been related to the risks identified by the FAA and the other US federal agencies involved in this decision. This is the kind of technology that was implicated in the 1996 fatal crash of a ValuJet DC9 aircraft. In that event, portable oxygen generators being carried in a cargo compartment likely caused a fire that caused serious damage to multiple aircraft systems and led to the crash that killed all on board.

What's the worst that could happen to me?
In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure that requires the use of supplemental oxygen, passengers in the lavatory could be deprived oxygen to the point of experiencing hypoxia, which is a condition where the body has an inadequate supply of oxygen. If the loss of cabin pressure is gradual and noticed by the crew, it is likely that you would have enough time to make it back to your seat. If there is a rapid loss of cabin pressure, symptoms could be severe, including loss of consciousness, seizures, coma, or death occur. The most well known hypoxia related fatal crash from the past few years involved the 1999 crash of an executive jet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart.

Does this prevent someone from using oxygen generators as a weapon?
Not at all. The FAA order does not removed portable oxygen generators from other parts of the cabin. Because replacing all portable oxygen generators would require retrofitting aircraft with oxygen systems that don't use oxygen generators would be expensive and time consuming, it is unlikely that the FAA would require to replacement of all chemical oxygen generators from all airliners. Note that some airliner models may use chemical oxygen generators to deliver emergency oxygen, and others may use bottled oxygen.

Does this rule affect my oxygen tank?
This change in FAA policy only deal with chemical oxygen generators used in airline lavatories. It does not affect medical oxygen systems.

Photo: Emirates A380 lavatory shot from Telstar Logistics

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  1. Hi,

    it would be very interesting to know which airliner models use bottles and which use chemical generation in order to provide emergency oxygen to passengers.

    Any ideas where such info may be found?

    Thank you

  2. it would not be a good idea to publicize that information. I've worked with aircraft interiors for nearly 25 years and I'm NOT going to tell.

  3. You are so cool.