Should we have minimum air quality standards on a plane? Yes, but …

Next time you catch a cold on a long flight, think about Standard 161-2007. It’s a minimum rule for air quality aboard commercial airlines proposed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) .

It’s a rule they’re pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt. And it’s a rule the airline industry, which reflexively opposes any kind of regulation, is no doubt fighting with every lobbyist it can afford.

Cabin air quality could be a lot better. An exhaustive study (PDF) commissioned by the British government recommended taking a more active role in regulating cabin air quality, including, for instance “limiting the the amount of time that passengers can remain in an aircraft when the ventilation systems are non-operational to 30 minutes.”

Passengers are exposed to all kinds of toxins and bacteria when they fly. Those include carbon monoxide, lubricating oils, hydraulic fluids, deicing fluids, and pesticides. Jeff Myers, a principal investigator for Battelle, which is conducting research on cabin air, says staying healthy on a plane isn’t easy.

The aircraft cabin is a challenging microenvironment for maintaining the health, comfort and well-being of passengers and crew. Space is limited, conditions can feel cramped, the outside environment is extreme, and travelers may experience anxiety over loss of control over their situation and environment.

But why should the government impose its standards on the airline industry? Particularly when there’s no imminent health hazard?

Byron Jones, chair of the committee that wrote Standard 161-2007, says the aircraft cabin is a unique environment, and therefore must be subjected to stricter regulations.

Unlike many other indoor environments, occupants do not have the ability to remove themselves from the environment, which is at a lower pressure and relative humidity than that found in many other environments. Standard 161 will help create a healthier, more enjoyable ride for the great variety of passengers on board.

Standard 161 would affect any commercial passenger air-carrier aircraft carrying 20 or more passengers. It is intended to apply to all phases of flight operations and to ground operations when the aircraft is occupied by passengers or crew members, and to address chemical, physical and biological contaminants that could affect air quality.

As someone who has caught numerous colds and a case or two of the flu, I can’t think of any reason not to establish minimum standards for air quality on a plane.

Can you?