British Airways it to be sued by a group of women and young girls over allegations that the airline’s now deceased pilot, Simon Wood, sexually abused children in African schools and orphanages.
Mr Wood, 54, a First Officer at British Airways, died last August after being hit by a train, and the women and girls claim the airline has legal responsibility because the pilot was working for the company when the alleged abuse took place, during flight stopovers.
During an inquest into Mr Wood’s death held on Wednesday, the coroner ruled that the pilot “took his own life”.
He was found dead after being struck by a train near Potters Bar station, Hertfordshire, and was due to appear in court that month on separate charges of indecent assault of an eight-year-old girl and of possessing indecent images of children.
On the same day law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the 16 alleged victims, claims that Mr Wood used his stopovers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to abuse the girls, some of whom were as young as eight-years-old.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Mr Wood was first arrested over an indecent assault allegation in November 2001 but prosecutors ruled there was not sufficient evidence to charge him. The CPS reconsidered the case in July last year after receiving new details of similar alleged offences committed overseas and suggested evidence of possession of indecent images.
Lawyer Nicola Marshall said: “We allege that Wood was able to abuse victims by reason of his employment with the airline, in particular through his involvement with the airline’s community relations work.
“The schools and orphanages that our clients attended were all in receipt of charitable donations from the airline, and Wood played a key role in administering those donations on behalf of British Airways. Our team will be travelling overseas over the coming weeks to meet with other potential victims in Nairobi and Uganda that have come forward more recently,” she said.
A spokesperson for British Airways said the company was “shocked and horrified” to hear the allegations against Mr Wood of actions that were “entirely outside the scope of his employment” with the airline.
“We are shocked and horrified to hear the allegations against Simon Wood, which appear to relate to his involvement in child-related activities entirely outside the scope of his employment with British Airways,” the spokesperson said.
“Our sympathies are with the victims and it is disappointing that the conduct of one person has caused so much distress to the many thousands of decent people who engage in charitable works on a regular basis,” they added.
At Easter in 2002 Mr Wood was among 20 crew members from two British Airways flights who stayed in Kenya over the period to volunteer at an orphanage, giving the children presents, medicines and donations from the UK. He told the Press Association at the time: “We play, sing, organise activities and generally entertain them. We become very close to the children.”
Additional reporting by Press Association