It is a change that affects every single airline that operates in the United States. The federal government has ordered safety equipment be removed from 6,000 commercial passenger planes, and the Federal Aviation Administration kept the decision to do it a secret.
It is officially called Air Worthiness Directive 2011-04-09, and unlike most air worthiness directives, the FAA delayed publishing its contents online. Local 2 Investigates previously obtained a copy of the document that orders airlines to remove the emergency oxygen generators from all lavatories.
"It's a risk you take when boarding an airplane. You should know. People can die," one airline industry veteran said on condition of anonymity.
The "retrofit" is already complete, and now in the rare event of aircraft rapid decompression, no air will flow through the oxygen masks in the lavatory.
" If you have a rapid decompression and you're in the bathroom, there's a good chance you won't survive it, and the rest of the airplane will," the airline industry source said.
Rapid decompression, when all the air is suddenly sucked out of an airplane, is rare, but it does happen.
Just last October, an American Airlines flight declared an emergency when a two-foot hole opened up in a 757 bound for Boston. Everyone survived by wearing oxygen masks, an option no longer immediately available if you happen to be in the airplane restroom.
"There was no specific threat, but we identified this potential security threat and we wanted to remove it," a source within the FAA said.
When Local 2 Investigates began digging into this story, there was no record of Air Worthiness Directive 2011-04-09 on the FAA's website. The number sequence conspicuously skipped that entry. The FAA source said the reason for the secrecy is simple: They wanted to make the changes before the wrong people realized a potential vulnerability.
Tuesday morning, after learning of our story, an FAA spokesperson contacted us to say the missing directive had just been posted. The agency also issued a statement which reads in part: "Rapid decompression events on commercial aircraft are extremely rare. If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, pilots are already trained to guide the aircraft to a safe, breathable altitude as quickly as possible. Flight attendants are also already trained to assist passengers to quickly access oxygen - including those in the lavatories."
The air generator removal was completed on 6,000 airplanes as of last Friday.
"The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently required the nation's airlines to disable the oxygen generators located in all aircraft lavatories to eliminate a potential safety and security vulnerability. The airlines completed the work on the 6,000 aircraft in the U.S. fleet on Friday, March 4.
"The FAA, along with other federal agencies, identified and validated the potential threat, then devised a solution that could be completed quickly.
"In order to protect the traveling public, the FAA eliminated the problem before making the work public. Had the FAA publicized the existence of this security vulnerability prior to airlines fixing it, thousands of planes across the U.S. and the safety of passengers could have been at risk. This proactive measure will help keep travelers as safe and secure as possible.
"Rapid decompression events on commercial aircraft are extremely rare. If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, pilots are already trained to guide the aircraft to a safe, breathable altitude as quickly as possible. Flight attendants are also already trained to assist passengers to quickly access oxygen - including those in the lavatories."
Lynn Lunsford Mid-States Communications Manager Federal Aviation Administration
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