Passengers at risk as fumes make pilots black out

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AVIATION EXPERTS have warned that the lives of thousands of airline passengers are at risk because pilots and cabin crew are suffering mid- flight seizures and blackouts after inhaling toxic engine fumes.

The world's airlines face lawsuits running into billions of pounds from employees who have complained of loss of consciousness, blurred vision, memory loss and neurological damage as a result of faults in air conditioning systems used on commercial jets. An estimated 3,000 pilots and cabin crew in Australia and the United States are already pursuing claims for compensation for long-term damage to their nervous systems.

One case involves Britain's most popular short-haul commercial passenger jet aircraft, the four-engined British Aerospace 146, which is used by the Queen's Flight and is also operated by the airlines Debonair and KLM UK.

The problem is thought to be linked to the method of circulating air in flight. "Fresh" air is routinely drawn into the cabin through the jet engines, which heat and pressurise it. But faulty bearing seals in the engines allow oil to leak into the airstream, causing smoke and fumes to enter the cabin.

The oils contain organo-phosphates, which are used in high-performance lubricants but have been blamed for serious illnesses suffered by farmers using old-fashioned sheep dips.

Airlines are anxiously following what is being viewed as a test case in Australia involving the BAe 146 and Ansett, Australia's leading domestic carrier. The claim in Sydney was put forward by Alyssia Chew, a former flight attendant with the airline. According to documents presented to the court this month, Ansett received reports of 14 "smells incidents" on board its 14-strong BAe 146 fleet in less than a year.

Meanwhile, a group of 19 former Alaska Airlines flight attendants are suing the airline over similar incidents on board the American-made McDonnell- Douglas MD-80.

Ansett acknowledges that some cabin staff can suffer short-term irritation and headaches as a result of exposure to oil fumes, but denies any link with long-term nervous- system damage.

Paul Tattersall, head of sales and marketing for British Aerospace, said the BAe-146 was built to the most stringent en-gineering standards, but added: "You can't cater for failures where something does break down in an unforeseen way. Then you might end up having some sort of leakage where something does get through." But a former captain on an Australian passenger airline told the Independent on Sunday about one occasion when she felt "as drunk as a skunk" while piloting her plane, a BAe 146, into Brisbane airport.

The Australian Bureau of Air Safety is investigating a separate incident in which a pilot became incapacitated while approaching Melbourne; the co-pilot landed the plane, but it was found the company had failed to replace a faulty engine seal discovered by mechanics 23 days earlier.

The danger posed by fumes in aircraft air-conditioning systems has been recognised for at least 15 years. Complaints from United States Air Force pilots in the 1980s prompted the international Aerospace Medical Association to carry out a detailed study, which concluded the complaints were "not a rare event" and leakages posed "a clear threat to flying safety because of acute toxic effects".