Mystery Flight Attendant
Sickness Baffles Air Industry

SEATTLE - Flight attendants who crisscross the globe have complained for years of occasional headaches, nausea or dizziness that cannot be explained by jet lag or a bad day.
That, plus disturbing although rare cases of permanently disabling tremors among flight attendants, have galvanised one labour union to fight what it charges is widespread poisoning of its members " and of air passengers " on commercial jets.
Twenty-six flight attendants have filed a civil lawsuit in King County court in Seattle alleging Alaska Air Group Inc. endangered their health by poor maintenance on MD-80 aircraft and ignored their complaints. The suit also names McDonnell Douglas Corp., which built the plane and was bought by Boeing Co. in 1997, and AlliedSignal Inc., which makes a backup engine the suit says spewed toxic fumes into MD-80 cabins.
Two of the 26 flight attendants are women in their mid-30s who say they are permanently disabled with Parkinson's Disease-type body tremors and are unlikely ever to fly again. A trial date has been set for August 2000, when 700 witnesses " many from abroad " are expected to be called.
Similar lawsuits are in various stages of litigation in Australia and Canada.
"Flight attendants on a lot of carriers are having problems but they don't know what they are. They haven't figured out the link like we have,'' said Joni Benson, who heads an air quality committee at the Alaska Airlines branch of the flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants.
"If you don't know what to look for, more often than not these incidents are chalked up to some sort of a virus.''
Similar Complaints Elsewhere
Benson recently met union representatives from Europe and elsewhere and said similar symptoms had been reported at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, China Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Air BC in Canada. "We are just now beginning to delve into how serious this is worldwide,'' she said in a telephone interview.
Benson told Reuters the AFA branch at Alaska Airlines has 1,400 documented cases of symptoms attributed to noxious fumes dating back 10 years. The U.S. aviation industry acknowledges there is a problem and has been investigating but is baffled.
"People here have rolled up their sleeves and (worked) on this problem for 10 years,'' Jack Evans, spokesman for Alaska Airlines told Reuters. But Alaska's thorough checks show no link between the illnesses and its airplanes, Evans said.
"We certainly believe there is something wrong affecting these individuals. We just feel that after 10 years and after all the things we have looked at it is not the planes that are causing them to be sick,'' he said.
"We have not found any evidence that there is anything on board the aircraft that is causing these problems.''
The AFA and Alaska Airlines have explored many possible causes including fumes from hydraulic fluids, air ventilation systems, possible organophosphate poisoning, ozone and even ash from volcanic eruptions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also conducting studies but so far it has no evidence of problems outside of Alaska.
"It is very hard to pin down because it seems to be specifically related to the MD-80 aircraft and one airline. We would like to know if there are other airlines out there that are experiencing the same thing,'' an FAA spokesperson said.
Oils, Other Fluids May Foul Cabin Air
Most aircraft have a trough inside the belly of the plane to catch spills from engine oil, hydraulic fluid and other lubricants. It carries the fluid to the back of the plane and funnels it outside through tiny "weep holes.''
In some planes the weep holes are very close to the air intake door for the Auxiliary Power Unit used to run electrical systems when a plane is on the ground. "The fluids go out the plane and immediately get sucked right back in and get piped into the ventilation system,'' Benson said.
Passengers are affected less than flight attendants, who spend more time in the air and breathe more heavily pushing meal carts up and down the aisles than the seated passengers. But one labour source close to the AFA said thousands of passengers have been made ill by toxic airplane air and have quietly settled with the airlines.
Alaska Airlines denies that claim. It says reported medical problems among travelers that were brought to its attention have all involved people with previous health complications.
The International Airline Passengers Association, a group of 100,000 frequent flyers, has logged relatively few such complaints. "We have looked into the issue numerous times because periodically we get complaints, but we haven't seen any in quite a long time,'' IAPA spokesman Hal Salfen said.
"Overall airplane air quality, if properly maintained, is not that big a problem,'' he added.
Boeing agrees maintenance is the key to preventing pollution on airliners. With proper use, the APU will not pump toxic fumes into the cabin, David Space, a Boeing engineer who works on cabin air quality, said.
"This is really an issue with Alaska Airlines. You'd need to look at the maintenance practices. Boeing is not involved.''
Evans said Alaska has taken many steps to resolve the problem, changing all the fluids used to clean cabins, installing high-efficiency filters and establishing new routines and standards for cleaning the ventilation system and for exposure to hydraulic fluids.
He said Alaska sees next year's court case as a chance to refute union claims that it has tried to cover up the problem.
"We think we will be able to show that we've taken extreme steps to be looking for what could potentially be causing these symptoms to occur, and also that we've been open and willing to address them,'' he said.