On Jan. 15, 2009, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger carefully glided his US Airways Airbus A320 onto the Hudson River minutes after the plane lost both its engines. The miraculous touchdown saved all 155 passengers and crew. On the tape of his exchange with air traffic control, Sullenberger could be heard calmly working to avert catastrophe.
Pilots face extreme pressure, both on the tarmac and in the air, and their ability to focus is critical to the safety of all those on board. But what happens to their performance when the air quality in the cockpit is less than ideal?
In a study by investigators at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a pilot’s ability to perform well on a series of stressful maneuvers dipped when levels of carbon dioxide on the flight deck rose. The research, supported by a gift from United Technologies to the Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, was published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
“We wanted to explore if we are doing everything we can to optimize pilot performance with regard to the air they are breathing on the flight deck,” said Joe Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science and principal investigator of the study. “And we think CO2 levels are part of that equation.”
Allen has spent years exploring how air quality affects on-the-job performance. A set of 2015 studies he led in collaboration with Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University found that CO2 levels and ventilation can affect cognitive function.