Unite is taking on the airline industry over toxic cabin air as the union announced today (March 28) that legal action has been served in 51 cases against five major UK airlines, including easyJet, British Airways, Thomas Cook, Virgin Atlantic and Jet2.
Unite has long called on the airline industry to acknowledge ‘fume events’, which occur when air contaminated by jet engine fuel bleeds into cabins due to failures in seals within the engines. Such contaminants include engine oil, hydraulic fuel and anti-freezing fluid, all of which contain a number of harmful chemical compounds, including organophosphates.
Now independent expert advice has concluded that the air in most commercial airline cabins can cause irreversible neurological damage and chronic illness among susceptible individuals.
The union backed claims allege that expert medical evidence shows long term exposure to cabin air or to high dose ‘fume events’ can lead to pilots and crew members developing chronic ill health and life threatening conditions.
The expert evidence for the court, relied upon in the claims supported by Unite, reveals how fumes from jet engine bleed air used to pressurise airline cabins contains a mix of toxic compounds including organophosphates and TCP.
Commenting on the 51 court cases involving pilots and cabin crew, Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett said, “The airline industry cannot continue to hide from the issue of toxic cabin air whilst placing the health and safety of aircrew at risk.”
“The evidence begs the question how many more must be put at risk before the airline industry cleans its act up?
“Unite will use every avenue, including calling for a public inquiry and pursuing legal action, to get the airline industry to take responsibility and clean up the cabin air on jet planes,” Beckett added.
“This must include using different oils to lubricate jet engines, better monitoring of cabin air, installing air filters and manufacturing planes that bring compressed air straight from the atmosphere.
“It may result in additional financial cost to industry, but that cost bears no resemblance to the value of cabin crew health and safety.”
It has long been thought that repeated exposure to fume events cause people to be chronically ill. A number of fume events in recent years – in some cases requiring emergency landings – have seen cabin crew become seriously ill.
Most recently, in January, a British Airways pilot declared an emergency and was forced to turn back to the flight’s departure city of Boston.
Crew members on a BA flight from Heathrow in London to Boston complained of a ‘toxic smell’ upon landing in Boston. Safety checks were conducted in Boston, after which the plane was given the go-ahead to complete the return leg of its journey back to Heathrow.
But only 1 hour and 40 minutes into the flight, the pilot returned to Boston due to a ‘fume event’ after crew fell ill. Ten crew members were taken to hospital for safety checks – it was reported that two members were seriously ill and one was described as ‘violently ill’.
Matt Bass inquest
In 2014, Cabin crew member Matt Bass, died in his sleep, aged 34, after months of displaying symptoms consistent with aerotoxic syndrome – the illness associated with exposure to toxic cabin air – including weight loss, respiratory and digestive problems as well as persistent fatigue.
Last year, the senior coroner overseeing Matt Bass’ inquest wrote an unprecedented letter of concern to the chief coroner following the inquest, saying that all coroners should call for additional tests to take place where the cause of death is suspected to relate to toxic cabin air on board aircraft.
This call for additional tests in suspected cases of aerotoxic syndrome is now part of new guidance given to all coroners.
Beckett said that additional testing “will provide a greater understanding of its harmful effects on cabin crew and other frequent flyers, while giving a deceased’s loved ones the answers that they need.
“The new guidance should act as a catalyst for a public inquiry into toxic cabin air which is an issue the airline industry has consistently sought to brush under the carpet.”
Beyond calls for a public inquiry, Unite is also concerned that airplane fume events have been under-reported. If you are a member working on cabin crew or related duties and have experienced a fume event, complete the Fume Event Register here.