Higher CO2 levels in cockpit affect pilot’s performance

Harvard University. (Photo: Twitter/@Harvard)

New York,¬†¬†Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the cockpit can directly impair a pilot’s ability to perform advanced manoeuvres and manage emergency situations, finds a study.

The study led by a team from Harvard University indicates that commercial airline pilots were significantly better at performing advanced manoeuvres in a flight simulator when carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on the flight deck (cockpit) were 700 parts per million (ppm) and 1500 ppm than when they were 2,500 ppm.

“Flying is safe, no question,” said Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor at Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.

“The entire flight experience is designed around a culture of ‘safety first.’ Optimising air quality on the flight deck must continue to be a part of that safety equation.”

Previous research found that, in office buildings, CO2 concentrations between 1,000 ppm and 2,500 ppm — levels once thought to be benign — negatively impact the cognitive function of employees.

For the new study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, the team recruited a small group of male commercial airline pilots and split them into teams of two.

Each team was asked to perform three 3-hour-long flight simulations that consisted of 21 manoeuvres of varying degrees of difficulty without the aid of autopilot.

While the difference in pilot performance at 700 ppm and 1,500 ppm, was not statistically significant, the pilots were more likely to successfully perform some of the most difficult manoeuvres at the lower CO2 level.

The study also found that the negative effects of CO2 on flight performance became more pronounced the longer the pilots were in the simulator.

“Our results suggest that we need to know more about how air quality on the flight deck can be used to enhance pilot performance,” the researchers noted.