TRAVEL
03/15/2011 05:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

FAA Responds To Removal Of Oxygen Masks In Airplane Bathrooms

In an article published last week, Gizmodo reported that the FAA was removing oxygen masks from 6,00 airplane bathrooms in the name of "national security."

The regulation took effect on Monday. The security threat, according to the Associated Press, has been widely reported; government officials fear that terrorists could use the oxygen from the lavatories to start a fire where no one can easily see it. Regulators quietly told the airlines to remove the masks before alerting the public for fear that thousands of planes could have been at risk.

The official FAA word initially was:

The [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 FAA, along with other federal agencies, identified and validated the potential threat, then devised a solution that could be completed quickly.

The solution? Removing the oxygen masks from aircraft lavatories, to which Gizmodo writer Jesus Diaz says: "Air Worthiness Directive 2011-04-09. That's the name of a new FAA rule that might kill you one day."

When the FAA's Office of Communications approached Huffington Post Travel and asked if we had read their full release on the issue after highlighting the Gizmodo story on our page, we asked them if they could comment on Jesus Diaz's article. One such argument of Diaz's piece is in response to this paragraph in the FAA release:

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.

To which Diaz responds, "But that's not really true: According to industry experts, decompression incidents are not uncommon on both civilian or military aircraft. In fact, about 40 to 50 rapid decompression accidents occur every year throughout the world, according to a report (PDF) by the Aviation Medical Society of Australia and New Zealand."

In response to Diaz's argument, the FAA tells Huffington Post Travel, "We cannot substantiate the Australian study that said that there were 40-50 decompression events a year. We do not believe the study to be accurate."

The numbers the FAA tells us is quite different, "In the past 10 years, there have been only 12 incidents of loss of pressure at cruise altitudes and none in which cabin altitude reached an unsafe level for breathing."

The numbers of events are significant because passengers who are using the lavatory during a period of rapid decompression will have to run out of the restroom and back to their seat to receive air. When the amount of events are factored into how long it takes for a passenger to stay "usefully conscious" during various levels of decompression severity, the number of lives potentially affected swings wildly.

The FAA tells Huffington Post Travel that, "Flight attendants are trained on how to deal with emergencies, including decompression events" but they "will not discuss how a flight attendant may access the lavatory."

We also asked the FAA what other agencies were involved in the investigation and removal of the oxygen masks and their response was, "We cannot identify the agencies involved."