- SEATTLE - Flight attendants
who crisscross the globe have complained for years of occasional headaches,
nausea or dizziness that cannot be explained by jet lag or a bad day.
- That, plus disturbing although rare cases of permanently
disabling tremors among flight attendants, have galvanised one labour union
to fight what it charges is widespread poisoning of its members "
and of air passengers " on commercial jets.
- Twenty-six flight attendants have filed a civil lawsuit
in King County court in Seattle alleging Alaska Air Group Inc. endangered
their health by poor maintenance on MD-80 aircraft and ignored their complaints.
The suit also names McDonnell Douglas Corp., which built the plane and
was bought by Boeing Co. in 1997, and AlliedSignal Inc., which makes a
backup engine the suit says spewed toxic fumes into MD-80 cabins.
- Two of the 26 flight attendants are women in their mid-30s
who say they are permanently disabled with Parkinson's Disease-type body
tremors and are unlikely ever to fly again. A trial date has been set for
August 2000, when 700 witnesses " many from abroad " are expected
to be called.
- Similar lawsuits are in various stages of litigation
in Australia and Canada.
- "Flight attendants on a lot of carriers are having
problems but they don't know what they are. They haven't figured out the
link like we have,'' said Joni Benson, who heads an air quality committee
at the Alaska Airlines branch of the flight attendants union, the Association
of Flight Attendants.
- "If you don't know what to look for, more often
than not these incidents are chalked up to some sort of a virus.''
- Similar Complaints Elsewhere
- Benson recently met union representatives from Europe
and elsewhere and said similar symptoms had been reported at KLM Royal
Dutch Airlines, China Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Air BC in Canada. "We
are just now beginning to delve into how serious this is worldwide,'' she
said in a telephone interview.
- Benson told Reuters the AFA branch at Alaska Airlines
has 1,400 documented cases of symptoms attributed to noxious fumes dating
back 10 years. The U.S. aviation industry acknowledges there is a problem
and has been investigating but is baffled.
- "People here have rolled up their sleeves and (worked)
on this problem for 10 years,'' Jack Evans, spokesman for Alaska Airlines
told Reuters. But Alaska's thorough checks show no link between the illnesses
and its airplanes, Evans said.
- "We certainly believe there is something wrong affecting
these individuals. We just feel that after 10 years and after all the things
we have looked at it is not the planes that are causing them to be sick,''
- "We have not found any evidence that there is anything
on board the aircraft that is causing these problems.''
- The AFA and Alaska Airlines have explored many possible
causes including fumes from hydraulic fluids, air ventilation systems,
possible organophosphate poisoning, ozone and even ash from volcanic eruptions.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also conducting studies but
so far it has no evidence of problems outside of Alaska.
- "It is very hard to pin down because it seems to
be specifically related to the MD-80 aircraft and one airline. We would
like to know if there are other airlines out there that are experiencing
the same thing,'' an FAA spokesperson said.
- Oils, Other Fluids May Foul Cabin Air
- Most aircraft have a trough inside the belly of the plane
to catch spills from engine oil, hydraulic fluid and other lubricants.
It carries the fluid to the back of the plane and funnels it outside through
tiny "weep holes.''
- In some planes the weep holes are very close to the air
intake door for the Auxiliary Power Unit used to run electrical systems
when a plane is on the ground. "The fluids go out the plane and immediately
get sucked right back in and get piped into the ventilation system,'' Benson
- Passengers are affected less than flight attendants,
who spend more time in the air and breathe more heavily pushing meal carts
up and down the aisles than the seated passengers. But one labour source
close to the AFA said thousands of passengers have been made ill by toxic
airplane air and have quietly settled with the airlines.
- Alaska Airlines denies that claim. It says reported medical
problems among travelers that were brought to its attention have all involved
people with previous health complications.
- The International Airline Passengers Association, a group
of 100,000 frequent flyers, has logged relatively few such complaints.
"We have looked into the issue numerous times because periodically
we get complaints, but we haven't seen any in quite a long time,'' IAPA
spokesman Hal Salfen said.
- "Overall airplane air quality, if properly maintained,
is not that big a problem,'' he added.
- Boeing agrees maintenance is the key to preventing pollution
on airliners. With proper use, the APU will not pump toxic fumes into the
cabin, David Space, a Boeing engineer who works on cabin air quality, said.
- "This is really an issue with Alaska Airlines. You'd
need to look at the maintenance practices. Boeing is not involved.''
- Evans said Alaska has taken many steps to resolve the
problem, changing all the fluids used to clean cabins, installing high-efficiency
filters and establishing new routines and standards for cleaning the ventilation
system and for exposure to hydraulic fluids.
- He said Alaska sees next year's court case as a chance
to refute union claims that it has tried to cover up the problem.
- "We think we will be able to show that we've taken
extreme steps to be looking for what could potentially be causing these
symptoms to occur, and also that we've been open and willing to address
them,'' he said.