The fact that the air inside commercial airplane cabins is impure is hardly news. However, is it actually harmful to the flight attendants who work there? According to four who have filed suit against aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing Co., it can be.
The suit stems from a 2013 cross-country Alaska Air flight on a Boeing 737 that was manufactured the prior year. The flight was diverted to Chicago after the flight attendants became ill and three passed out. At the hospital, they were reportedly found to have symptoms consistent with hydrocarbon exposure.
The details of the suit raise larger concerns about harmful fumes that cabin crews and passengers may be breathing. It discusses airplanes’ bleed-air systems that are used to bring outside air into the cabins. In some cases, according to the suit, engine oil and byproducts get into the air due to things like leaky seals and valves and engine malfunctions, creating toxic fumes.
The plaintiffs hold Boeing responsible for their illnesses, claiming the company knew of the problem for many years. In 2007, an engineer noted in an internal email that “we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take interest.” According to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Boeing has been aware of the problem for over 60 years. The suit, which accuses the company of fraud and negligence, says that Boeing failed to take safety precautions like installing sensors, alarms and/or filters or to warn employees of the dangers.
Currently, all commercial planes made by Boeing and Airbus have bleed air systems with the exception of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. A representative for the Association of Flight Attendants calls the bleed air system a “flawed design.”
The plaintiffs say they are still experiencing symptoms from exposure to toxic fumes. These include fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and nausea. One reported sweating a blue substance. Two have not returned to work. One, who says she is still exhausted and in pain, claims that her life was ruined. The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages from the company, along with changes to the system.
Anyone who believes that their illness is related to their job conditions would be wise to determine what their legal options are. Apart from getting necessary compensation to cover medical care and lost wages, they may well be saving others the pain they’ve experienced.
Source: Chicago Tribune, “Lawsuit against Boeing says airplane cabin air can turn toxic,” Gary Karp, June 23, 2015