Strange smells are reported on about one in every 2,000 flights
Researchers are to travel on passenger and cargo flights to see if cabin air contamination is making travellers and pilots ill.
It follows complaints from pilots and campaigners that pollutants from aircraft engines are reaching cabins.
The research carried out by Cranfield University is being paid for by the UK government.
It says there is a duty under recent legislation to protect the health of airline passengers.
On most aircraft, pressurised air is pumped from the engines, before the combustion process, into the cabin. This is known as "bleed air" and, because it passes through the engine, the concern is that it is picking up substances such as engine oil.
Civil Aviation Authority records suggest what are called "fume events" are reported on one in 2,000 flights. But the problem is the event can be fleeting and difficult to trace.
We do know we are looking for volatile organic chemicals to a very, very high level of accuracy
Helen Muir Cranfield University
Often there is little sign of something unusual in the air other than pilots or passengers reporting a strange smell.
There are particular concerns about two aircraft, the BAE 146 and the Boeing 757.
Cranfield University researchers will travel in the cockpit of these planes, as well as an Airbus aircraft as a control, with a variety of sensing devices capable of picking up minute traces of pollutants.
The study will look closely at whether engine oil fumes are getting into the bleed air, in particular whether harmful organophosphates are being breathed in by passengers and crew.
Air quality researcher explains how the air will be sampled
Cranfield University professor Helen Muir, who is leading the research, said: "It's going to be difficult, and that is why we are using the latest equipment to do it. We do know we are looking for volatile organic chemicals to a very, very high level of accuracy.
"This sort of thing doesn't happen often in aviation."
The work has already started. During one flight to test the equipment, researchers were astonished - given the rarity of these occurrences - when the pilot suddenly complained about a strange smell.
Professor Muir noticed the aircraft had made a steep take-off and wondered whether the way pilots fly could be triggering pollution incidents.
She has asked a statistician to examine the flight data recorder from the aircraft alongside reports of noxious fumes, and believes the two could be linked.
The full results are due next year and will be eagerly awaited because there is a great debate within the aviation industry about cabin air contamination.
A study published last year by the Committee on Toxicity suggested there was no evidence of a link, but more research was needed.
On the other hand, several highly vocal groups of pilots and passengers have been campaigning for years against what they believe is a major problem that is being covered up by airlines.
Pilots' union Balpa has welcomed the research saying it is the first time a group of experts has been assembled to examine the issue. The findings could have an impact on all airlines across the globe.
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