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In the last issue of the Corporate Watch Newsletter we revealed how the air supply aboard commercial jet airliners is regularly contaminated with highly toxic chemicals which can poison and seriously injure pilots and passengers (September-October 2007). This contamination can happen because, as a cost-saving measure, airliners take compressed air for the cabin from the engines. Jet engine oil, however, contains powerful toxins, including organophosphates, a chemical linked to Gulf War Syndrome. by Chris Grimshaw

In spite of a powerful and growing body of evidence presented by aircrews, campaigners and independent doctors and scientists, the airline industry has issued blanket denials of all such allegations. Meanwhile government committees such as the UK’s Committee on Toxicity seem determined to ignore any evidence that might threaten airline profits.

Now two recent stories threaten to blow the lid off the industry’s dirtiest secret... or would if the mainstream media had the guts to write it up.



In October, news broke that crew working for Flybe were boycotting some of the airline’s planes, after several very serious toxic fume incidents. According to BBC Five Live, ten incidents had occurred on Flybe’s ageing BAe 146 planes in the last 15 months. Several of these incidents resulted in hospitalisations, when air crew were incapacitated by fumes, and in one case a plane flying from Belfast was forced to make an emergency landing on the Isle of Man, with the pilots using emergency oxygen supplies.

A well placed source told Corporate Watch that a number of Flybe air crew have been given letters by the company doctor saying that they should not fly on particular planes for health reasons.

Flybe, which has been rebranding itself under the slogan ‘low cost... but not at any cost’, is reluctant to talk about the issue. Flybe’s press enquiries are handled by The Red Consultancy, a leading UK PR company.

We asked them the following questions (which they would only take in writing):

Can you confirm or deny that Flybe’s company doctor has issued letters for air crew saying that they should not fly on particular planes for health reasons?

Does Flybe accept that there were hazardous ‘fuming incidents’ aboard flights, (as described in the Radio 5 report ‘Cabin Fever’)?

Has Flybe conducted any cabin air monitoring tests aboard its BAe 146 aircraft? Did the company’s crisis communications plans include dealing with ‘fuming events’ aboard the aircraft? If so, how long has this been planned for?

-Flybe (and Red) directly refused to answer these questions. Instead they issued the following statement

-Flybe is completely confident that its aircraft are operated and maintained to the highest industry standards.

-We have over 700 commercial pilots within Flybe and to date, not a single one has ever refused to fly one of our aircraft.

In line with many previous public announcements, Flybe took a commercial decision several years ago to reduce the number of aircraft types it operated from three to two. As a result the BAe 146 fleet will have been withdrawn by February 2008.

In spite of the seriousness of this potentially lethal hazard, this appears to be the only statement made to the press at the time of writing.


In another twist to the tale, documents were recently presented to the Australian Senate which show that the manufacturers of the planes, BAe Systems, were aware of the fuming problem with the 146 model as early as 1993 and acted to suppress the story. Two Australian airlines, Ansett and EWA, had brought legal action against BAe claiming that a design fault in the BAe 146 airliner was producing ‘obnoxious oil and other fumes’ in the cabin. The documents show that BAe agreed to pay out A$750,000 in a settlement. Allied Signal, the US company which manufactured the engine parts responsible for the leaks, also paid out US$1,235,000. Confidentiality clauses were included in both deals so that the story was kept out of the public domain.

The agreement also blocked any future actions: ‘Ansett and EWA hereby jointly and severally agree that the said sum of A$750,000 shall be paid by BAe to EWA as liquidated damages in full and final settlement of any and all claims which Ansett or EWA may have against BAe either now or in the future in respect of oil or other fumes adversely affecting the cabin environment’.

In 1999 Ansett gave

evidence to the Australian Senate’s Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, which was investigating the contaminated air issue. An Ansett executive said that Ansett had not initiated any legal proceedings against BAe.

It is currently unknown what other similar deals may have been made between other airlines and aircraft manufacturers.


Research into the contaminated air issue is currently being conducted by the government-appointed Committee on Toxicity (COT). Their most recent report, released in September 2007, proved inconclusive and recommended further research. The campaign group the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE) is fiercely critical of COT’s work and produced a detailed report on errors in COT’s research. We asked COT for a response to the GCAQE’s accusations that their report is ‘industry biased’ and ‘contains many technical inaccuracies and misinformation which were previously highlighted to the Committee On Toxicity and the Department of Transport by the GCAQE, other unions, interested parties, doctors and scientists from around the world.’ We also wanted to know why COT has ignored so much evidence submitted by GCAQE and other independent scientists.

The contact person for the committee, Khandu Mistry, was unreachable, despite repeated calls. We subsequently tried the Department of Health press office who said they would get back to us. They did not. We called back; the press officer responsible had gone on holiday. We were told that it wasn’t really their responsibility and that we should talk to the

DoTR. The DoTR press office didn’t think it was their responsibility either and sent us to the Health protection Agency who also denied responsibility. After some discussion of transparency and public accountability the HPA spokesman promised to get back to us, with some answers. He did not. After two weeks of failed inquiries we again tried Khandu Mistry, the committee’s contact person, and were surprised to catch him in the office. He also claimed that it was not his responsibility to answer press enquiries and that he would pass on our questions to the DoH’s press department.

A few days later we received a reply to one of our two questions, asserting that the ‘COT review process was open for discussion... There were many observers at all meetings where this item was discussed. Importantly the COT review was considered a good piece of work by BALPA who submitted the original evidence.’ They failed to answer the more important question as to why so much input from GCAQE and others has been ignored.

For more information see the website of the Aerotoxic Association -