A reader reported that, during a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, the cabin crew sprayed insecticide throughout the cabin.
While this was a genuine WTF moment for me, I asked my wife about it, who has flown much more than I have, and she had experienced it on a flight from Australia to New Zealand.
This won’t be news to many of you, as the practice has been around for many years (decades?), but it was news to me:
Kerry Yuen, now retired and living in Carollton, Texas, was a flight attendant for 39 years, much of that time on the Los Angeles-Australia route. Yuen said sometimes the pesticide was applied so thickly you could see it dripping down the wall, covering instrument panels, coating the galley where food was prepared. She remembers the days when she emptied two cans of phenothrin per flight above the heads of passengers, though the label on the can said not to inhale.
In the mid-1990s, in-flight spraying of phenothrin came under congressional scrutiny after several congressmen, visiting New Zealand, were sprayed with the pesticide over their objections.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to ban the use of phenothrin in aircraft in the United States, and to protect U.S. citizens, the U.S. government was able to convince many countries to eliminate in-flight spraying requirements, particularly after the Department of Transportation (DOT) began considering a rule that passengers on U.S. carriers would be notified in advance that spraying would occur on flights to those countries.
But in most cases, the between-flight application of permethrin continued.
New Zealand’s insistence on spraying the cabins of incoming airliners is striking public opposition in the United States.
Flight attendants, backed by their union, say the spray is making them sick.
And some American travellers are said to be avoiding New Zealand because of the spray, which is being investigated for effects on the brains of unborn and newborn babies.
After earlier claims that the insecticide was causing illness, quarantine officials ceased spraying cabins while passengers were on board.
United, Air New Zealand, Qantas and most other New Zealand-bound airlines now spray a “residual” bug-killer while the plane is empty. The residue stays on surfaces for up to eight weeks.
Flight staff at United, the only US airline regularly serving New Zealand, claim the spray gives them itchy skin, bad headaches and nerve problems.
Their union, the US-based Association of Flight Attendants, is urging the World Health Organisation, Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies to press New Zealand to ease its regulations.
United Airlines confirmed that the issue had spilled into court, with attendants lodging health claims, but would not comment further.
New Zealand flight attendants believe the spray is safe, but the Americans claim the residual sprays contaminate food on galley counters and seep through to their skin from seat fabric.
Now, I just called Air New Zealand in an attempt to understand the current practice, since typing words like fumigation, insecticide, pesticide and permethrin into the website search widget results in no mention of any of this.
I was put on hold for about 20 minutes.
The representative came back on the phone and told me that the planes are fumigated every seventh week and when there are no passengers aboard. She repeated a few times that the spray is not applied while people were aboard. The insecticide is applied through the aircraft’s air conditioning system.
I requested to see more information on this, since nothing is available on the Air New Zealand website. This is what I received over email:
Air New Zealand spray their aircrafts only with a spray that is WHO approved.
It is done by Boracure and is done every seventh week. Done overnight when all passengers have disembarked, galley surfaces are wiped down and the aircraft is lightly sprayed via the air conditioning.
Ok, so the routine procedure is to leave a persistent residue of poison in the planes, rather then applying it when the people are present. If the as-little-detail-as-possible response from the airline doesn’t cut it for you, see this Australian Government page, which goes into detail of how this works: DAFF/MPI Schedule of Aircraft Disinsection Procedures for Flights into Australia and New Zealand.
Now, what happens if the bio-security certificate, which allows a plane to not have to be gassed on each flight, has expired and people are aboard?
Be sitting down for this one. This happened in 2008.
Passengers on an Air New Zealand flight from Fiji found themselves being fumigated yesterday after it was discovered that the aircraft’s biosecurity clearance had expired.
An Auckland man – who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity – said two Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officers boarded NZ21 from Nadi at Auckland International Airport yesterday morning.
“All we heard was that this was a MAF requirement. It was like how they used to do things on planes about 20 years ago, but I still thought it was pretty strange,” he said.
A bio-security certificate prevents an airline from having to fumigate an aircraft every time it returns here.
The spraying left the man with a sore throat and caused a baby to gag and vomit.
The construction engineer said the MAF officers took about five minutes to fumigate the plane before leaving the passengers to sit in “a thick fog” as they sealed the door shut behind them.
“It was pretty concerning to see that and there were other passengers having to hold their noses and cover their mouths,” he said. “It was something akin to a sauna, not the heat but the look of the place and the longer it went on the foggier it became, it was ridiculous.
“Even now I have a real raspy throat so you could imagine what the effect would be on an infant.”
Air New Zealand spokeswoman Di Paton said biosecurity certificates on its aircraft did expire “very occasionally”. But she said the airline did not consider it had made a mistake in terms of not having its biosecurity clearances before passengers boarded, saying “these kind of things happen”.
“In this particular instance it was by one day the biosecurity clearance had expired – a few hours, in fact. It’s not really a mistake. It’s just happened as a result of other things.”
So, there you have it.
Enjoy your flight!
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