Toxic fumes on planes: Can it hurt you?

By Molly Grantham - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – A veteran U.S. Airways Flight Attendant says toxic fumes are being released into planes.  Crew members are sick.  Some so sick, they're still not back at work a year later.  WBTV investigated these claims in a months-long investigation.

According to Association of Flight Attendants, a union which says it represents half of all flight attendants, 30 U.S. Airways aircraft on the east coast have been impacted in the past year.  Many are Charlotte-based planes.

"I'm talking because I think passengers need to know," said one veteran flight attendant who came forward under the condition we protected her identity.  "I felt like I had to come forward for the health of myself and my co-workers."

We'll call this veteran flight attendant "Jane Doe."  Jane works and lives on the east coast.  She says sometime in the past three years she was on a plane that had toxins accidentally released.

"Everyone smelled it," she says.  "We communicated with our pilots and in the end everyone was treated medically.  Everyone of the crew members involved has seen some sort of medical help."

Including her.

"Flight attendants are talking about this more and more," says Jane.  "We are educating ourselves.  But headaches and breathing problems – serious respiratory issues – continue to be a problem for some crew members [who have been affected].  U.S. Airways has their own doctor in which you must go see in the case of a situation that happens in your work.  But overall U.S. Airways has not been overly-supportive of what has gone on and I don't know why."

On the flip side, Jane says the pilot's union has been very supportive.  Captain James Ray is the spokesman for the U.S. Airways Pilot Association and a working pilot who still flies U.S. Airways aircraft.  WBTV talked with him on-camera.

"Toxins produced from oil in the aircraft engines have caused a lot of problems with our industry," Captain Ray said.  "Pilots and flight attendants alike have been sent to the hospital on multiple occasions.  Some remain in the hospital.  We have pilots who have lost their FAA certificate because of exposure to these toxins.  So it is certainly a concern we have."

He said he wants passengers to speak up if they smell something.  In the same breath he doesn't want to create mass panic.

"It isn't a widespread issue," he said.  "There haven't been a lot of people who have gotten sick.  But crew members are exposed more often than your average passenger.  We're more susceptible to problems.  As a pilot I am not only concerned about my health, I'm concerned about the health of the passengers as well."

WBTV reported odd odors released into a U.S. Airways plane twice in 2010.  U.S. Airways confirmed both cases.  Once was on Flight 1041 on January, 2010.  U.S. Airways confirms the crew members sickened on that flight are still not back at work.  They were all transported to the hospital, but released several hours later.

The airline says no passengers on that flight reported any lingering effects.

The other case was in November of 2010.  U.S. Airways has not said whether those employees are all back at work yet or not.  U.S. Airways also says it was not toxic fumes in that case, but a ground power issue at the gate.  A spokeswoman for the airline says after the U.S. Airways maintenance team checked out the plane, it was deemed safe to fly.

But on the night of that incident last November WBTV contacted Mecklenburg County Poison Control.  Poison Control confirmed to us it did give advice to at least one physician on how to proceed and treat a crew member.

As both "Jane" and Captain Ray will be quick to point out, this doesn't happen on every plane.  It's obviously not supposed to happen.  It is, they also make sure to emphasize, happening on various airlines.

"I am proud to be a part of this company," says Jane, "but they have dropped the ball with this issue.  They need to pick that ball back up and protect the people out there making a difference and putting themselves out there."

U.S. Airways says it's aware of the concerns, but that it is "confident the air quality in all of our aircraft satisfies all safety standards."

A spokesperson also issued this statement:  "Our maintenance program for systems affecting cabin air quality met or exceed manufacturer recommendations.  We encounter various technical problems with our fleet of highly complex and sophisticated aircraft, just as all airlines do.  We track every problem, every part and every fix for every aircraft on a flight-by-flight basis and we take the safe operation of our 3,200 daily flights as our most important priority.  While these odor-related complaints are uncommon, we take them very seriously and our safety, pilot, flight attendant and maintenance teams work closely together to investigate and resolve."

Also, the list below is from the U.S. Airline Pilots Association's Safety Committee.  It was issued January 14th, 2011 and lists tail numbers of 30 U.S. Airways aircraft the union claims have had documented air contamination incidents.

We asked U.S. Airways about this list. 

A spokeswoman said, "The list is really not accurate.  It's talking about ANY odor-related complaints over what could be a period of several years.  We look into any odor-related complaint and track it.  Some of these odor-related complaints could be fume-related, but to say all of these are is just not accurate.  They could be things like electrical smells, could be lavatory, could be a variety of things.  We take all complaints seriously."

Click the attached video to see the full story which first aired March 9th, 2011 on WBTV's 11:pm News.

Click the attached "web extra" to hear more raw sound from the people interviewed.  (Including much more from Judith Murawski, the air quality specialist for the Association of Flight Attendants.)



Safety Committee Update

Documented Air Contamination Incidents on US Airways Aircraft

Many US Airways aircraft have been involved in air contamination incidents in the past. USAPA is publishing the documented aircraft, updated as needed, to help you become aware of possible problem aircraft. This list is offending aircraft that have been documented. A copy of this list has been posted on the website in the Safety Committee section and will be updated as we receive new information.

US Airways Aircraft with Documented Air Contamination Incidents:


































Please use extreme caution, especially on these aircraft, as well as all aircraft, with unknown odors or fumes. These can be extremely dangerous and may contain toxic oil or hydraulic fumes that can contain neurotoxins. When in doubt, do not accept or continue a flight until a determination of the odor can be verified.

Tom Kubik

John Sabel

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