FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — It’s an open secret in the airline
industry: A flawed design in almost all airplanes is putting
flight attendants and pilots at risk, and passengers can
unknowingly become victims as well.
July 16, 2018, at 3:43 p.m., Flight 1097 from Washington Dulles
bound for Los Angeles made an emergency landing in Kansas City.
The pilot told the control tower that there were sick passengers
were being hospitalized,” said an Alaska Airlines flight
attendant. We’re calling her Jane to keep her identity a secret
and to protect her from feared retaliation.
understanding is that the crew felt symptoms of nausea, itching
throat. That is what caused the diversion,” said Jane.
said contaminated air leaked into the cabin on that diverted
flight and that it wasn’t the first time it had happened.
of co-workers and passengers have recently been sickened by those
odors. It is what’s known in the industry as a “fume event” and it
has happened on different planes in Alaska’s newly acquired Virgin
workers have been sharing their experiences among themselves in
internal emails, complaining that management isn’t taking them
seriously. But all are fearful of speaking out.
who is trying to communicate about these instances, they have been
pulled in by the company and threatened with their jobs,” said
5 obtained an audio clip of a recent Alaska Airlines conference
call in which employees were warned to keep all discussion of
have a very strict social media policy,” a voice was heard saying
on the audio recording. “We will investigate those instances where
people do not abide by the policy and the infraction can lead to
termination, so please keep that in mind.”
Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry said the
so-called fume events are extremely rare, with less than 33
occurring in every one million aircraft departures. But reporting
is only required if the airline determines the fume event is
linked to an aircraft component problem.
times airlines determine it is not, which means that not all crew
complaints are reported.
travelling public is, for the most part, unaware that they could
be at risk. One recent lawsuit called it the airlines’ “dirty
have known about it for a long time,” said aviation attorney Mike
Danko, who is a pilot himself. “Most studies suggest that we get
about five fume events per day in the U.S.”
says toxic cabin air has been a known concern on almost all makes
of jet aircraft going back 50 years to the first commercial
an email from 11 years ago, a Boeing engineer openly discussed it
with co-workers, concluding: “I think we are looking for a
tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take
said the source of the contamination is jet engine oil. At
extremely high temperatures, all oils used in jet engines give off
fumes contain something called organophosphates. Organophosphates
are neurotoxins. Same stuff that is used in nerve gas,” explained
fumes can affect crew and passengers. Nearly all commercial jets
bleed fresh air in from the engines. That air is then fed through
an air conditioner into the plane. If a seal fails, the fumes can
be released into the cabin. People exposed to it described it as a
“dirty sock smell.”
have had cases where one pilot was essentially totally
incapacitated, and the other pilot although having difficulties
managed to land the plane, and that has happened more than a few
times, without question,” said Danko.
Robert Harrison, who heads up UCSF’s occupational health
clinic, said a single fume event can be enough to trigger
serious and long lasting health problems. Respiratory issues
include tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing and nervous
system problems like headaches, dizziness, memory lapses and
the last two decades I have seen over one hundred patients,” said
Harrison. “My clinical experience is that these events occur, the
exposures are real and the symptoms are connected to the exposure.
I don’t think flight attendants and pilots are making this up.”
did a large survey of flight attendants, found a pretty high
prevalence of symptoms, and uncovered the iceberg, if you will,
below the surface. There’s a large number of flight attendants who
had symptoms but had never reported them,” said Dr. Harrison.
for passengers experiencing the symptoms, Dr. Harrison said he’s
seen only a few. That could possibly be because when passengers do
have symptoms, they may not relate them to their plane travel.
don’t think passengers may be aware,” Harrison said.
a statement, Alaska Airlines said “our maintenance and engineering
team have found that the overwhelming majority of the reported
smells have nothing to do with the aircraft.”
for that July diversion to Kansas city, Alaska said it was “due to
an odor detected in mid-cabin. The captain made the call … out of
an abundance of caution.” The airline made no mention of sick crew
or passengers, even though in the control tower recording, the
pilot clearly said that passengers on board were sick.
the flight attendant KPIX 5 spoke with for this story, said all
the company is trying to do is bury the problem.
are still happening, so I don’t think they are really doing much.
I just want people to be aware that when they are exhibiting
symptoms that they don’t normally exhibit, especially if they are
frequent fliers, to get themselves checked out,” said Jane.
the paper’s conclusion is that it’s not possible to quantify
potential health risks without more studies. So far, there’s no
funding for that.
is the text to Alaska Airline’s complete statement on fume events:
part of our ongoing commitment to safety, we work very closely
with our employees, unions and partners to immediately report,
investigate, and solve any issues. Alaska speaks with our
counterparts at Airbus and Boeing on a daily basis to ensure
transparent communication and coordination as part of our
regular check-ins. We have been in lock-step with Airbus to
immediately investigate and resolve all reports of cabin odors.
Of the recent cabin odor reports, our maintenance and
engineering team have found that the overwhelming majority of
the reported smells have nothing to do with the aircraft. Odors
can come from many different sources not related to the
aircraft, and as a result, we’ve taken immediate action to look
into any possible sources by increasing inspections of cabin
interiors, deep-cleaning onboard food and beverage
equipment, and instituting mandatory engine run after engine