LAST week’s decision by the coroner investigating the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate to demand urgent action to combat toxic fumes in cabin air means the air industry can no longer ignore a problem the Eye has been reporting for 15 years.
It is highly unusual for a coroner to issue a section 28 order “to prevent future deaths” ahead of an inquest actually being heard, but Stanhope Payne, senior coroner for Dorset, said people regularly exposed to fumes circulating planes faced possible “consequential damage to their health”. He added: “That impairment of health to those controlling aircraft may lead to the death of occupants.”
Neurological and respiratory problems
Airlines, manufacturers and industry watchdogs have consistently denied they have been poisoning pilots, crew and passengers because of a cost-cutting decision to “bleed” air from the engines and then cool it for people to breathe in the cabin, instead of taking in a separate fresh supply. They have consistently relied on government or industry-funded research suggesting no link between cabin air quality and the often neurological and respiratory problems which have in many cases prematurely ended flight careers – and in some cases, it is now alleged, also caused deaths.
In the first official recognition of “aerotoxic syndrome” in this country, Mr Payne said he was satisfied that poisonous organophosphates from engine oils can leak into cabins and can, in a number of susceptible individuals, cause serious damage.
The coroner had of course seen the first case study of a pilot, published in the Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry, which found that Mr Westgate, who died in 2012, had extensive neurological damage, which had also infiltrated heart muscle tissue, consistent with organophosphate poisoning. It provided a link between the ill health crew had been reporting for years and the noxious fumes from engine oil leaking into cockpits and cabins.
In a corner
BA and the industry watchdog, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), now have 56 days to detail their “action plan” to deal with the problem. They are in a corner. Either they comply – a tacit admission they indeed have the problem they have consistently denied; or they have to seek a judicial review of the coroner’s ruling.
Frank Cannon, solicitor for the Westgate family and dozens of other aircrew from a variety of airlines who say they have suffered neurological damage and ill health, told the Eye: “No one is expecting BA to ground their bleed-air aircraft, but if they were compliant to the coroner’s report of concern they should start planning a phasing-out of systems that should be consigned to aviation museums.” In the meantime, he added, the industry could fit filters, adapt older craft with retrofit bleed-free systems and take care of their injured aircrew.
Direct fresh air
Neither BA nor the CAA would say if they were going to challenge the ruling. While BA said “it would be inappropriate to comment further while proceedings are continuing”, the CAA told the Eye: “Airlines are required to report any potential safety incidents, including where fumes or smoke are detected on board an aircraft. Although these incidents are rare, we take all reports seriously and review them to identify any safety issues or trends.”
The good news for travellers is that BA’s parent company, IAG, responsible for aircraft procurement, is gradually replacing some older craft with Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, which takes in direct fresh air for the cabin. It now has eight, with a further 34 on order.