Four flight attendants are suing Boeing for allegedly exposing them to toxic air aboard a commercial flight from Boston to San Diego. The 2013 flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Chicago after three of the four flight attendants on board lost consciousness and had to be rushed to a hospital. Two years later, all four flight attendants still suffer health effects that include memory loss and constant tremors.

About fume events

The lawsuit alleges a decades-long attempt by Boeing to conceal “fume events” – instances where toxic chemicals from oil in a jet’s engines mix with the air being pumped into a plane’s cabin. The resulting toxicity, specifically from neurotoxins like organophosphates, puts airline personnel and passengers at risk. The suit, filed in Illinois where Boeing is headquartered, accuses the company of fraud and negligence, as well as design defects and failure to warn about the dangers of toxic cabin air.

Lasting effects

The four flight attendants – Vanessa Woods, Faye Oskardottir, Darlene Ramirez and Karen Neben – were working Alaska Airlines Flight 769 on July 12, 2013 when they began to feel sick shortly after boarding the aircraft. By the time the plane landed in Chicago, three of the four flight attendants had lost consciousness as a result of a fume event, which experts believe happens on at least one flight per day in the United States. Two of the four flight attendants can no longer work and all four suffer from serious long-term medical problems including cognitive impairment and memory issues, tremors, blinding headaches, devastating fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.

“People should be able to fly without fear that the air they are breathing is toxic,” said Vanessa Woods, now-former flight attendant. “Our goal is to force Boeing to stop hiding these dangerous incidents and prioritize the safety of passengers and airline personnel over its own corporate profits.”

From a statement issued by the flight attendants:

“Boeing’s commercial jets (with the exception of the Dreamliner) rely upon air pulled in through the engines to provide pressurized air to the cabin. Fume events occur when jet engine oil contaminates this air. This can happen for any number of reasons, from leaking engine seals to engine malfunctions to the overfilling of an oil reservoir. During fume events, toxic oil particles and vapors mix with the cabin air and then get inhaled by the airplane’s occupants. Inhaling air contaminated with jet engine oil can cause both short-term and irreversible health problems.

"Looking for a tombstone"

“As the lawsuit details, Boeing has been made aware repeatedly – beginning as early as the 1950s – that the air quality aboard its planes poses a serious health risk and that fume events are happening at an alarming rate. Even the manufacturer’s own engineers have warned about the risk of fume events and suggested a variety of safety measures, but they were repeatedly ignored. In 2007, a senior Boeing engineer wrote in an internal email: ‘I think we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going take interest.’”

The flight attendants are calling on Boeing to take three corrective steps in the interest of safety:

  • Install sensors to alert flight crews to fume events immediately so counter-measures can be taken to protect passengers and personnel. (Both Honeywell and General Electric have offered to manufacture these sensors for Boeing but the company has not acted.)
  • Install filters to stop toxic oil and its byproducts from mixing with the cabin air.
  • Remedy the known and dangerous defects of bleed air systems or stop using the systems to provide air to the cabin and flight deck. (Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, introduced in 2011, replaced the bleed air system with an all-electric option that poses no risk of toxic oil fumes entering the cabin. Unfortunately, the rest of Boeing’s fleet – which comprises nearly half of the world’s planes – still utilizes a bleed air system.)

In April 2015, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) held its 43rd annual Board of Directors Meeting. The first item in the report issued by AFA International President Sara Nelson focused on exposure to toxic oil fumes. The report noted that “the issue of contaminated bleed air pumped into the cabin continues to serve as the greatest threat to our members’ health and our union remains focused on removing this health risk.”

Putting passengers and crews at risk

“Bleed air systems have no filter to keep these dangerous chemicals out of the lungs of passengers and flight crews. Decades of research have shown that fume events can cause the exact symptoms from which these four flight attendants are now suffering,” said Zoe Littlepage of Littlepage Booth, one of the law firms handling the case. “By ignoring the effects of these toxic chemicals, Boeing is willfully putting passengers and flight personnel at risk.”

Fume events in the U.K.

Fume events have also become a high-profile issue and growing safety concern in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In December of 2012, 43 year-old British Airways pilot Richard Westgate died after suffering from long-term health problems he believed were caused by repeated exposure to contaminated cabin air. In his report, the Senior Coroner investigating Westgate’s death found “symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air” and said “urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths.”

Unite, the union that represents nearly 20,000 airline workers in England, is currently helping nearly 20 former and current cabin crew planning legal action against British airlines, according to a BBC report earlier this month. During the 2005 International Aero Industry Conference, the General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association read a closing statement highlighting the “chronic and acute illness amongst flight crew…resulting in significant flight safety issues. Passengers may also be suffering from similar symptoms.”