Air Canada pilots will be able to fly with facial hair thanks to new findings from an SFU research team.
Until last year, Air Canada and several other airlines restricted pilots from having beards. Air Canada claimed that a clean-shaven face was necessary in case of an in-flight emergency in order to properly seal an oral-nasal facemask.
In 2016, Air Canada invited Sherrie Ferguson, director of the Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit at SFU, and her team, to research the effectiveness of facemasks on different beard lengths.
The team first had to determine if the equipment used in today’s airline industry delivered enough oxygen to ensure a bearded pilot would be protected from hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) in an emergency scenario.
Secondly, the team had to make sure masks provided protection against carbon monoxide in case of a cabin fire.
Research participants were divided into three groups: individuals with stubble (less than 0.5 cm in bead length), medium-sized beards, and long beards (up to 40 cm).
Using Air Canada supplied masks, participants entered a chamber that simulates various altitudes.
Ferguson and her team measured the participants’ oxygen saturation levels at different altitudes and determined that “beard length had absolutely no impact on the subjects’ oxygen saturation level.”
In terms of measuring carbon monoxide levels, the research team used stannic chloride to recreate the conditions of smoke from a fire.
Ferguson found that the masks remained tightly sealed for different lengths of facial hair.
The research determined that Air Canada’s “policy was based on outdated research on obsolete equipment and testing on respirators not intended for aircrew oxygen delivery.”
“We found no adverse effects on bearded subjects within the two parameters of our study,” said Ferguson.
Air Canada says the research findings prompted a review of its policy.
“We changed our policy on facial hair following this study,” said Jay Musselman, senior director of fleet and standards, and Chief Pilot, at Air Canada.
The airline will now allow pilots to fly with a maximum beard length of 12.5 mm.