Canadian researchers say they have debunked the long-held belief that facial hair interferes with the seal on pilot oxygen masks and at least one airline has lifted its decades-old beard ban. Air Canada, which commissioned the Simon Fraser University (Vancouver) study, says its pilots can now sport beards “to a maximum length of 12.5 millimeters (half an inch) and neatly trimmed.” The airline hasn’t said exactly why it paid the Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit at SFU to test the beard hypothesis in its hyperbaric chamber but the facility’s director was unequivocal about the results. “The (no-beard) policy was based on outdated research on obsolete equipment and testing on respirators not intended for aircrew oxygen delivery,” said Sherri Ferguson. “We found no adverse effects on bearded subjects within the two parameters of our study.”
Those parameters covered the two basic reasons airline pilots need good seals on their oxygen masks. Air Canada supplied its standard-issue masks for the experiment. Delivery of oxygen was tested by putting three groups of bearded men (stubble, medium length and bushy) into the chamber and simulating depressurization at altitude. Oxygen saturation remained consistently healthy for all of the test subjects. The other test simulated smoke in the cockpit by introducing a vapor that irritates noses and throats. None of the test subjects reported any reaction.