Time to clear the air

This first appeared as a Comment in the 22 April issue of Flight International

Cabin air contamination by engine oil fumes is an issue that will continue to hang around – like the bad smell it is – until the airline industry confronts it.
A new challenge to the industry’s inertia on this issue begins this week, as a UK coroner’s court opens a hearing to rule on the cause of death of a 43-year-old British Airways pilot who became sick, according to a specialist aeromedical clinic, from repeated exposure to aero-engine oil-based organophosphates.
Tissue samples taken from the pilot revealed ­significant damage. The coroner may not find that ­damage to have caused his death, but alternative ­possible verdicts include that it was “a facilitator”, meaning it contributed to his death.
Whatever the coroner’s ruling, the industry is not off the hook. The damage to the pilot’s brain and nervous system is fully documented, adding to an increasingly massive body of evidence of harm to pilots, cabin crew and passengers. The industry – and the UK Department for Transport –- claims the evidence is circumstantial, which it can do because the burden of proof is the plaintiff’s. But this is going to change because the plaintiffs are making two key changes to their legal tactics.
At present, astounding though it may seem, there are no standards for cabin air quality and no requirement to monitor it for contaminants, making it impossible to call airlines and manufacturers to account. So, those who believe their health has suffered from airborne fume events are now attacking the airlines on their duty of care to employees and passengers. This will be more difficult for the airlines’ lawyers to argue around.
The other change is the introduction of death into this toxic equation. Until now cases had always ­involved damage to health. So to say the coroner’s ­verdict is potentially seismic is an understatement.
There are about 30 more cases in the legal pipeline, including the death of a British Airways steward. This may ultimately be shown to have been caused by ­unrelated factors – but if it is associated with cabin air contamination, even as a contributory concern, things will have to change.
This particular case happens to involve British Airways, but is a global airline problem that also implicates ­aircraft, engine and air system manufacturers. Within two weeks, whatever the coroner’s verdict, cabin air contamination will have moved several steps up the priorities ladder for airlines, manufacturers and ­government regulators.

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