The latest case of headscratching I saw is a report saying that all airlines operating in the US have discreetly removed the chemical oxygen generator from the toilets in their airplanes, because of a "hazard that could jeopardize flight safety". At least, that's what the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) says in its Airworthiness Directive 2011-04-09.
An oxy... what?
|A chemical oxygen generator|
Since the metal cylinder can become as hot at 500 F (270 °C), you will smell an alarming yet normal burning odor. And since the canisters will be empty in 20 minutes, the pilots will be descending quickly to a breathable altitude.
Now, why are these things deemed dangerous in airplane lavatories? The FAA won't say. It even went so far as to secretly ask airlines to remove the generators from airplane toilets before making the directive public. Aren't you intrigued now? Don't you want to know what secret evil lurks in these live-saving cylinders?
Canisters of concern
|Mix of NaClO3 and sugar burning|
The weed-killing threat would actually make more sense. The problem with sodium chlorate is that it's a lousy explosive. It has about half the explosive power of black powder, which is itself one tenth to one fifth of the power of TNT. And like black powder, it needs an enclosed container to explode, otherwise it burns like a sparkler.
Let's assume Al-Qaeda has found a suitably fanatical volunteer to blow up an airliner. Under the FAA oxygen generator scenario, the terrorist must go to the restroom, remove the generator from its brackets (with what tools?), saw open the cylinder (how?), scrape the chemical from the cylinder (don't lick your fingers, remember, it's toxic), pour it into a bottle or some other container (ideally, a sturdy pressure cooker). Then, he must mix in sugar (you'll need about 100 of these little paper packets), close the container, and light up some firing system (like an explosive cord fitting through the container.)
So all that Al-Qaeda has to do is to find somebody dumb enough to fall for their arguments, yet clever enough to execute such a scheme. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying that the talent pool of such gullible, suicidal MacGyvers must be quite shallow.
|(Source: Domino Sugar)|
AIR ATTENDANT: Oh, my, you want the whole box of sugar packets from the galley? Sure! Help yourself. You do like a lot of sugar in your coffee, don't you?
TERRORIST: Yes, I like it very, very sweet. And, er, can I borrow a screwdriver?
AIR ATTENDANT: Certainly. Here you are. What for, if I may ask?
TERRORIST: It's for stirring all that sugar in the coffee. It gets a bit syrupy. Oh, and may I also borrow a hacksaw?
AIR ATTENDANT: What for?
TERRORIST: For opening all these sugar packets.
AIR ATTENDANT: Of course. Fortunately, I always have one in my knitting bag. Here you go.
TERRORIST: Great. Can you help me carry all of that to the restroom? I'll grab my pressure cooker, my explosive cord and my lighter.
We might have hinted in another post that the TSA was less than 100% effective, but still, that's a lot of things to pass through those X-ray machines.
The more you think about it, the less credible the threat is. But that didn't stop the FAA from issuing a directive, and the airlines complied without a peep. Some foreign regulation outfits, such as the DGAC, the French civil aviation agency, even went so far as requiring their national airlines to obey this incomprehensible rule, even for planes that are never flying to the US. All of that to eliminate a risk that is vanishingly small.
But, you say, even if the risk is very small, why not eliminate it? It can't hurt, right?
Well, yes, it can hurt. It statistically will hurt.
Give me embarrassment or give me death!
If you are in the loo at the time a depressurization occurs, you'll quickly get into hypoxia, better known as "getting dumb from lack of oxygen". Hypoxia is particularly sneaky because you don't realize you are losing your mental capabilities. Videos of volunteers subjected to a short hypoxia are quite hilarious and deeply embarrassing for said subjects, once they are back to breathing normal air. But stuck in the toilets, you won't get so lucky. Seven minutes is about twice as long as it takes to kill you. The crew has been instructed to check the lavatories in case of a depressurization. Pray that they are able to do so.
Next time you're in an airplane loo and you feel your ears popping, you might get lucky and remember to unlock the door before passing out. When you wake up, you'll be down on the aisle floor with your pants still down and a yellow mask on your reddening face, while nearby passengers try to stop young children from gawking.
And that, mind you, is the optimistic case.