Aerotoxin legal claims mount

Airline staff backed by union on compensation

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The numbers of pilots and cabin crew pursuing legal action against commercial airlines for serious illnesses they claim are the result of contaminated cabin air has rocketed from 51 to 220 since 2019.

If successful the claims of the 220, represented by the union Unite, could cost the industry billions. Claimants hope this will provide them with some compensation for their suffering and also force companies to fit infiltration systems that will prevent toxic fumes circulating among airline crew and passengers.

Cabin air is sourced from air that is bled from the underwing engines and auxiliary power unit. In terms of weight and cost this is highly efficient. Commercial airlines began using the technology in the early 1960s.

Contaminated air

Other than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which came on to the market in 2006, all commercial jet engine aircraft use bleed air, which is contaminated with engine oil and hydraulic fluid that includes organophosphates (OP), as their source for cabin air. Dreamliner has a no-bleed architecture for the outside air supply to the cabin. This reduces fuel burn and associated engine emissions and improves fuel efficiency. But its weight and size reduces by a small amount the number of passengers that can be transported. That raises costs that are likely to be passed on to customers.

OPs were diagnosed in 1951 by Solly Zuckerman, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, as deadly poisons. They can accumulate in the body and attack the nervous system and brain cells. Symptoms can include memory loss, severe fatigue, depression and psychiatric effects. Shepherds forced to use sheep dip containing OPs and First Gulf War soldiers who used OP chemical sprays on their tents have, with limited success, claimed this has caused severe illnesses and deaths.

Unless smoke can be seen, verifying that a contaminated air event has occurred is difficult as airlines have resisted demands to install detection systems. But when growing numbers of airline crew began to believe their long-term health problems were caused by breathing in unpleasant-smelling air the Aerotoxic Association was formed at a parliamentary meeting in 2007 by John Hoyte, a professional pilot for 30 years who succumbed to mysterious ill health that led to him taking premature retirement on medical grounds in 2005.


Hoyte has helped hundreds to obtain a diagnosis of their debilitating symptoms. He has been left deeply frustrated at the unwillingness of the civil aviation industry to recognise the suffering of many of his former colleagues. In addition, according to Hoyte, the “airline companies do not take kindly to any of their staff who raise their concerns about aerotoxins. People just try to battle on.”

Dee Passon worked as cabin crew for 25 years, 19 with BA. In 2008 she was diagnosed with aerotoxic syndrome. She was convinced her working environment, in which she suffered a number of fume events – some of which she raised with management – had contributed to her illness. Passon was forced to retire in 2009 after BA agreed to pay her an ill-health pension after accepting the doctor’s diagnosis.

Another former pilot, Gary*, claims to have experienced several fume events. He quit work with chronic fatigue and it took him years before he was eventually diagnosed with OP poisoning. “My doctor calculated that by staying away from flying it would take around a decade to recover most of my health and that has proved to be true.”

Gary, whose case is being represented by the union Unite, cannot even take the risk of flying. “Even if I book a 787 Dreamliner flight I only know for certain what the plane is when I get to the boarding gates,” he said. “I loved working as a pilot, for which I was extremely well paid. I made many friends right across the globe. I cannot visit them. My doctor has warned me that another fume event could make me seriously unwell again.”

‘Permanently disabled’

In March last year in Oregon, USA a former airline pilot of JetBlue Airway, Andrew K Myers, was successful in his claim against the company to the Workers Compensation Board, which accepted that his toxic encephalopathy and mild neural cognitive disorder were the result of acute chemical and toxic inhalation.

Myers experienced a fume event in January 2017 and has suffered medical complications from his exposure to the toxic chemical fumes. His solicitor Glen Lasken said that following his success, Myers “has a viable workers’ compensation claim that will translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits over a period of years. He’s permanently disabled; he’ll never fly again; he was a gonzo athlete – he can’t do any of that now. His quality of life has been taken from him.”

Similar cases are coming to court in other parts of the world, including one in France, where it is expected that injuries as a result of contaminated cabin air will be officially recognised as a labour-related disease.

The industry here though remains convinced there are no problems. Spokespersons from the Civil Aviation Industry and BA both cited a recent European Aviation Safety Agency report concluding that cabin air “is similar or better than that observed in normal indoor environments”.

Neither organisation would allow an aircraft to operate if it was believed that it posed any health or safety risk, they said. The BA spokesperson said “Fume or odour events have been found to have been caused by a wide range of issues, including burnt food, aerosols and de-icing fluid.”

According to a Unite spokesperson: “The industry’s refusal to accept a problem with bleed air means very little is being done. If steps are taken to change the way air is delivered to the aircraft cabin it will be treated as a tacit admission there is a problem with the existing bleed air system. Rhetoric that air travel is one of the safest forms of transport would be misleading and wrong.”

Medical evidence

Hoyte and Gary had both hoped the airline industry could be persuaded to change direction by the testimonies of its former employees and medical and scientific evidence. They have both abandoned such an idea.

“The issue has been overlooked because of cost. Fitting detectors that reveal bleed leaks will see more aircraft on the ground being repaired. The 787 reduces passengers per flight,” said Gary. “Companies have been juggling the cost of future litigation against the cost of fixing the problems now. The court cases though are building up. I believe the 220 figure is the tip of the iceberg in the long run.”

Airline pilots often earn over £100,000 a year. Because many of those taking out claims – the majority against BA – have retired years early the costs to the company could be considerable if the cases are successful.

“This should force the companies to take action to resolve these problems by removing bleed air from aircraft. This will improve working conditions for all airline crew plus passengers who can be assured they won’t be made unwell due to contaminated air,” said Gary.

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