SFU study busts myth about facial hair on pilots

September 14, 2018

By Diane Mar-Nicolle

A study conducted in SFU’s hypobaric chamber has sealed Air Canada’s decision to allow pilots to sport facial hair.

Until last year, Air Canada and several other airlines required pilots to have a clean-shaven face. Air Canada reasoned that in the case of in-flight emergency, a clean-shaven face was necessary to ensure a proper seal on an oral-nasal facemask.

In fall 2016, however, Air Canada retained Sherri Ferguson, director of the Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit at SFU, and her team, to research the efficacy of facemasks on different beard lengths.

The team’s first objective was to determine if present-day equipment used in the Canadian commercial airline industry delivers sufficient oxygen to protect a bearded pilot from hypoxia during an emergency cabin depressurization scenario.

Ferguson explains that hypoxia is a dangerous condition that can occur when the body does not receive enough oxygen. It is a common concern for divers using rebreathers, pilots in unpressurized aircraft, and mountain climbers.

The second objective was to find out whether the mask provides sufficient protection against carbon monoxide should the cabin become smoke-filled from fire.

Ferguson divided research participants into three groups: those with a small amount of facial hair such as stubble (less than .5 cm in length), those with medium sized-beards and those with long beards (up to 40 cm).

Wearing masks supplied by Air Canada, the subjects were put into a hypobaric chamber which simulates a range of altitudes.

Participants were assessed at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 ft. above sea level.

Ferguson measured the subjects’ oxygen saturation levels at every altitude change and found that “beard length had absolutely no impact on the subjects’ oxygen saturation level”. She says a drop in oxygen saturation level is the most acute indication that the masks are leaky and unable to maintain a proper seal.

For the second test, Ferguson used stannic chloride to create conditions similar to smoke from a fire.

“If you breathe it in you will soon have a burning sensation in your lungs and your eyes water,” she says.

The team held the vaporized chloride around the masked subjects’ heads for one minute. Ferguson found that all subjects were unable to detect the fumes and that the masks maintained a tight seal irrespective of varying amounts of facial hair.

The report concludes that, “The policy was based on outdated research on obsolete equipment and testing on respirators not intended for aircrew oxygen delivery.” Ferguson adds, “We found no adverse effects on bearded subjects within the two parameters of our study.”

Jay Musselman, senior director, fleet & standards and chief pilot at Air Canada says the study provided the basis for changing Air Canada’s policy for aircrew.  

“We changed our policy on facial hair following this study,” he says, “to permit it to a maximum length of 12.5 mm and neatly trimmed.”