23 March 2018
A coroner has been investigating the death of a 43 year old British Airways (‘BA’) pilot on medical leave, who believed that he had been poisoned by repeated exposure during his career to contaminated aircraft cabin air.
The Senior Coroner for Dorset has written to BA and the Civil Aviation Authority (‘CAA’) highlighting his concerns that organophosphate compounds in cabin air could damage the health of passengers and crew. Although the inquest has yet to take place, the coroner has sent both organisations a report which states that ‘in my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken’, calls for urgent action and requires a response which the organisations must provide within 56 days.
It is common practice in the airline industry to use warm compressed air from aircraft engines to pressurise the cabin. Passengers are usually isolated from this ‘bleed air’, but in the event of a leak jet fuel can contaminate the cabin air with organophosphate compounds. The coroner’s concerns are:
- That organophosphate compounds are present in aircraft cabin air
- That passengers and crew in aircraft cabins are exposed to them, with consequential damage to their health
- That impairments to the health of those controlling the aircraft may lead to the death of the occupants
- That there is no real-time monitoring to detect such compounds in the cabin air
- That no account is taken of genetic variation in humans, such as would render individuals tolerant or intolerant of exposure
Campaigners claim that so-called ‘aerotoxic syndrome’ is responsible for the deaths of at least two pilots and numerous incidents where pilots have passed out during flights. Alleged effects include persistent headaches, tunnel vision, nausea, chronic fatigue, neurological and respiratory conditions and brain tumours. A lawyer acting in this case claims to have been approached by more than 50 former airline staff and two frequent flyers with a view to bringing legal claims against a number of airlines.
The CAA, which is responsible for monitoring and maintaining air quality on aircraft, acknowledges that aerotoxic syndrome exists, but insists that occurrences are rare. According to BA, independent research has shown no evidence that pollutants occur in cabin air at levels exceeding health and safety standards. A 2010 Parliamentary Select Committee report concluded that concerns about significant risk to health of airline passengers and crew were not substantiated.
With the coroner’s findings likely have an impact beyond the UK, this case shows how safety issues are taking on an increasingly global aspect. A coroner may report his findings and make recommendations to organisations involved in the circumstances of a death in order to prevent future deaths. Any recommendations to BA or the CAA are unlikely to be unique to them. As the prosecution of Bodycote Hip made clear in 2009, courts may regard as an aggravating feature an international company’s failure to take account of similar incidents occurring in another country.
No conclusions can currently be reached in relation to the coroner’s report. However, recent High Court and Employment Appeal Tribunal decisions make clear that employers can owe duties to employees travelling abroad in the course of their employment, or working remotely in another country, even where premises belong to or travel is booked by a third party.
It is increasingly clear that organisations, whilst they must comply with local safety laws as a minimum, should also have regard to the potential indirect extra-territorial effect of UK safety regulations right across their business.