The industry’s danse macabre

KLM admits it up front: potential neurotoxins from the engine oil occasionally get into the cockpit and cabin air in its aircraft.

It’s a global problem that needs global solutions, says KLM, and it cannot act alone in an environment where the problem is not officially acknowledged and for which there are no public or occupational health standards.

KLM is joining an increasing band of carriers, including Lufthansa and Air Berlin, that admit the existence of a problem but appeal for official standards to be declared so the industry can face the issue together. Likewise the German and Dutch governmental transport departments are calling for international action. But no-one’s rushing to deal with it.

Manifestations of the problem keep popping up like a cork on the water. The latest is a court decision in the Netherlands demanding that KLM carry out tests to detect, identify and measure fumes in its 87-strong 737 fleet.

Why just the 737? Because a KLM 737 pilot, Willem Felderhof, after his fourth bout of serious illness from fumes exposure, recovered – again, then re-qualified for flight, but refused to go back on the line because the carrier had not introduced any promised new measures to make it safe for him to go back to work. KLM stopped his pay, and Felderhof took them to court.

The court agreed that KLM had the right to stop his pay because the condition he had is not officially recognised as being connected to fumes events, and therefore is not a recognised occupational disease, so the sufferer loses his pay and cannot claim against the company or national occupational insurance.

KLM’s statement to the press sounds rather tired. This is a paraphrase: “Okay we’ll carry out the court’s orders, but we already know what we will find. Lots of tests like this have already been done. Fumes escape, they harm some people badly and others hardly at all. But there are no rules that require us to act because officially the problem does not exist.”

Meanwhile the CEO of Netherlands-based TUI Group carrier ArkeFly is researching tests that can establish the degree of prone-ness of individuals to organophosphate poisoning. The idea is that, in future, he can test all applicant pilots and cabin crew, and existing employees can volunteer for tests.

What he will do when he gets the result he is less clear about, but he says he is trying to get the medical conditions recognised as an occupational disease, so then the company is insured against its consequences and victims are not left high and dry without a job, considerably incapacitated but with no recognised illness or cause.

But what will this mean for the passengers? If ArkeFly does not test them or warn them, will it have some form of liability?

This is  like one of those medieval dances at a masqued ball, where the partners gracefully move around each other in a sequence of patterns, but never touch, and their grotesque and expressionless masques deny all emotion.


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