Suit over cabin air quality could change the industry Boeing
and Honeywell are
accused of knowing for years that design flaws in MD-80s and
DC-9s let harmful chemicals into aircraft cabins
By Byron Acohido
Three Alaska Airlines managers conducted
an extraordinary experiment on an MD-80 jet in 1996. Frustrated
by complaints about noxious mists on MD-80 flights, the managers
tried to recreate the problem on a jet parked inside a hangar.
John Fowler, then chief of maintenance,
ordered a mechanic to squirt 8 ounces of hydraulic fluid into
a scooplike ''air inlet'' on the jet's underbelly, where it
was sucked in by a small engine pumping fresh air into the
In a few minutes, the managers noticed
a waviness in the air inside the cabin that looked like automobile
exhaust or a heat wave. ''I recall a metallic taste in my
mouth, some burning around the eyes and sensitivity in my
nose,'' Fowler would say later.
Fowler told his story recently during
a trial that's been unfolding for 10 weeks in state superior
court here. Twenty-six current and former Alaska Airlines
flight attendants say they have suffered severe neurological
damage from being repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals on
MD-80 flights during the 1980s and 1990s.
The case is expected to go to the jury
this month, and the verdict could ripple well beyond Seattle,
Alaska Airlines' hometown. A victory for the flight attendants
could damage the public's confidence in the more than 1,700
MD-80s and DC-9s, the MD-80's predecessor model, used by airlines
worldwide. It could also force airlines and aircraft makers
to confront contaminated air problems that regularly turn
up on other models. And it might stir further action to reduce
the health risks for millions who fly, especially flight crews,
young children and people sensitive to certain chemicals.
''This is a big environmental issue
with serious consequences,'' says Jean Christophe Balouet,
an environmental consultant based in Paris who has worked
for flight crew unions in several countries. Airlines and
aircraft makers, he says, have been ''reluctant to admit contamination
takes place because they'd have to compensate the people who
have been exposed.''
Last year, the Alaska flight attendants
won a $725,000 out-of-court settlement from Alaska Airlines,
and now they're going after two of the nation's biggest companies:
Boeing and Honeywell.
The plaintiffs contend both companies
have known for decades that the MD-80 and DC-9 have design
flaws that make it easy for leaking chemical fluids to get
sucked into the auxiliary power unit, or APU, and mix with
cabin air. The APU is a small turbine engine used to generate
electricity and circulate cabin air before takeoff.
Boeing inherited responsibility for
the MD-80 and DC-9 models when it bought McDonnell Douglas
in 1997. Honeywell owns AlliedSignal, which made the APU.
Both companies dispute the flight attendants'
claims. They say fumes that enter the passenger cabin don't
contain enough chemicals to cause harm. The lawsuit is believed
to be the first to assert that an aircraft maker is responsible
for the quality of the air breathed by passengers and airline
crews. Jets built in the 1980s and since use 50% recirculated
cabin air, instead of 100% outside air, as earlier models
Yet a wider group of people now routinely
travel by air. In no other public venue can you find infants,
the elderly and the infirm crammed into a public space --
with no exits -- and air supply systems in close proximity
to pressurized lines of toxic chemicals.
Over the past decade, flight attendants,
pilots and public-health advocates worldwide have clamored
for air quality testing and standards. In a report to Congress
in December, the National Academy of Sciences called for establishment
of a surveillance program to monitor cabin air quality and
document health effects.
''If people had half a clue about the
possibility that this environment they're entering for whatever
period of time could jeopardize them, they'd be up in arms,''
says former flight attendant Debra Bradford, the lead plaintiff.
on other models
The Alaska flight attendants point
to evidence the problem goes well beyond their airline's jets.
A July 1996 Alaska Airlines maintenance document, introduced
during the trial, identifies 15 other airlines reporting instances
of ''fluids entering APU air intake'' on DC-9s and MD-80s
and resulting in ''associated passenger/crew complaints including
illnesses.'' Among the most well-known airlines cited were
Alitalia, American, Swissair, TWA and US Airways.
To gauge how often air quality problems
are reported on DC-9s and MD-80s, USA TODAY checked the Federal
Aviation Administration's Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs)
database. The FAA requires airlines to file the one-page documents
each time a mechanical problem arises. They are an imperfect
indicator because some airlines are more rigorous about filing
them than others.
Even so, safety experts consider SDRs
a useful tool for spotting industrywide problems.
From 1974 through mid-2001, eight U.S.
carriers -- American, Northwest, TWA, Delta, Continental,
US Airways, Midwest Express and Alaska -- reported 1,051 incidents
of fumes, smoke, haze, mist or odors entering the cabin air
supply system of DC-9s and MD-80s, USA TODAY found after reviewing
SDRs supplied by Air Data Research of Helotes, Texas.
In a majority of the reports, the aircraft
turned back to the gate or made an unscheduled landing. Typically,
the air supply system was inspected, parts replaced and the
jet returned to service.
The DC-9/MD-80 isn't the only model
with cabin air problems. Through the 1990s, ''air quality
incidents'' have been reported on Airbus 320s, Boeing DC-10s,
737s, 757s and the British Aerospace BAe 146, other airline
maintenance records and union surveys of airline crews show.
In October, the British Air Line Pilots
Association surveyed 93 crews who reported more than 1,600
events of fumes reaching the flight deck on Boeing 757s.
The events ranged from pilots ''noticing
some smells'' and a few ''serious incidents where crews had
to put on oxygen masks,'' says Bruce D'Ancey, assistant technical
secretary for the union.
Honeywell and Boeing maintain that
leaks, in general, occur so infrequently and pollutants mixing
with cabin air are so minuscule that health risks are minimal.
''The level of (chemicals) that would
enter the cabin environment in event of a leak is 1/1,000th
to 1/10,000th of what would be required to even begin to be
potentially harmful to human health,'' says Honeywell attorney
Though declining to comment specifically
on the trial, Boeing provided a statement listing 11 studies
purporting to show cabin air ''pollutant levels'' to be ''low
and, in general, not different from ground-based environments
such as your home or office.''
Medical experts say the right kind
of research -- studies that analyze contaminated air, not
just cabin air with no reported problems -- has yet to be
''Industry keeps saying there's no
evidence that people have been hurt, but there's no evidence
people have not been hurt either,'' says Christiaan van Netten,
a professor at the University of British Columbia's Department
of Health Care and Epidemiology.
''Basically, we don't know because
we have yet to catch one of these incidents with the proper
A good place to begin such detective
work would be on any DC-9 or MD-80, says plaintiffs' attorney
Randy Gordon. He and another attorney, Sam Elder, have spent
four years gathering evidence of what they say are two design
flaws involving the APU.
They begin with the placement of the
APU's air inlet, the rectangular opening through which the
unit draws in fresh air, in a ''6 o'clock'' position at the
rear belly of the fuselage. Gordon and Elder contend that
as McDonnell Douglas incorporated improvements to the 1960s-era
DC-9, it should have heeded advice in a 1974 installation
handbook suggesting the air inlet ought to be moved.
That's because hydraulic fluid lines
running throughout the aircraft invariably leak fluid into
the belly, which is designed with small ''weep'' holes so
such fluid can drain out. Gravity and motion can draw fluid
toward the rear belly, where the air inlet sucks it in like
a vacuum. The APU then compresses the fluid and mixes it with
air delivered into the plane's ventilation system.
''The least favorable location is an
inlet located well aft of the bottom surface of the fuselage,''
the installation handbook warns. ''Fluids likely to be ingested
with this type of inlet include those that may be spilled
within the aircraft fuselage.''
SAE, a group that sets industrial standards
for lubricants, reinforced that warning in a 1981 advisory:
''APU inlets should not be located on the bottom of the fuselage
where there is maximum exposure to . . . fluid leakage.''
But it wasn't until after Boeing acquired
McDonnell Douglas in 1997 that something was done. In 1999,
more than a year after the Bradford lawsuit was filed, Boeing
certified the latest version of the MD-80 and renamed it the
Boeing 717, with one telling change: The APU air inlet was
raised to one side, in the 2 o'clock position, of the fuselage,
where it is unlikely to suck up leaking fluids.
Boeing officials testified that the
air inlet was moved solely to meet stricter FAA ground noise
rules. But Gordon and Elder contend Boeing moved the inlet
to reduce future liabilities.
''Everyone knew the 6 o'clock location
was prone to ingestion problems, so when the FAA said move
it for noise, they had an excuse to do the right thing for
the wrong reason,'' Gordon says.
The FAA in recent years has required
airlines using DC-9s and MD-80s to install metal strips and
drain tubes near the air inlet to help direct leaked fluids
away from it. An FAA order in September 2000 makes reference
to ''reports of smoke and odor . . . due to hydraulic
fluid leaking in the APU inlet, and subsequently into the
air conditioning system.'' The order requires airlines to
strengthen hydraulic lines prone to cracking, ''which could
result in smoke and odors in the passenger cabin or cockpit.''
When smoke or odor is reported on an
American Airlines MD-80, the carrier removes the plane from
service to conduct a ''burn-out'' procedure designed to remove
all remnants of the leaked fluid from the air supply pumps
and ducts. American has retrofitted its fleet of 360 MD-80s
with higher-powered APUs and installed all available diverters
and upgradeable ducting and fluid lines, says American spokesman
''We've built in a set of policies
and procedures over the years to try to prevent fluid ingestion
into the APU and odors in the cabin,'' Hotard says.
Gordon and Elder say the second design
problem came to light in the 1980s when airlines began reporting
an unexpectedly high number of premature APU removals because
of chronic leaks of an internal oil seal, court records show.
In 1995, AlliedSignal assigned an engineer, Arthur Eckstat,
to try to resolve the problem.
Now retired, Eckstat testified that
he discovered AlliedSignal had failed to adequately test the
compatibility of a commonly used lubrication oil with a certain
type of seal. The oil turned out to be more corrosive to that
particular seal than anybody thought.
In August 1996, AlliedSignal began
to call for airlines to switch to a compatible seal the next
time they removed the APU for an overhaul. Karl Pfitzer, Honeywell's
director of product safety and integrity, says most airlines,
including Alaska, made the switch by 1998. ''We think it has
been fully resolved,'' Pfitzer says.
But by then, APU seal leaks had plagued
airlines for more than a decade, Gordon says. Incompatible
seals and a poorly located air inlet, he says, combined to
make the 1990s a decade when Alaska Airlines received about
1,600 reports of what the airline began calling ''unexplained
illnesses'' from crew members and passengers. ''Mysteries
are cheaper than fixes,'' he says.
On a June 1996 MD-80 flight from Sacramento
to Seattle, Terri Nixon, then an Alaska flight attendant for
10 years, became dizzy and confused. She subsequently developed
blurred vision, migraines, extreme fatigue, balance problems
and memory loss.
Nixon lost her ability to multitask
and, after the airline rejected her workers' compensation
claim, was forced to go on welfare. She now works as a cocktail
waitress and has trouble remembering things. ''I write all
my orders down. You learn to cope.''
Karen Burns had been a flight attendant
for eight years when she boarded a flight from Cabo San Lucas,
Mexico, to Phoenix in July 1996. On the flight, she and two
co-workers became seriously ill. Maintenance records show
the MD-80 had leaked 8 quarts of hydraulic fluid.
the next two years, Burns endured violent, involuntary jerking
of her upper trunk and arms. Six years later, she still has
occasional shakes and hasn't been back to work. ''As I start
getting tired, I don't hold myself right, and it becomes more
Bradford, a nine-year veteran at Alaska,
says she got used to toughing out a variety of flu-like symptoms
she'd sometimes leave work with. In March 1998, she went from
the airport to her hotel room feeling acutely depressed.
She says she began coughing up blood
and developed respiratory problems, memory lapses and chronic
disorientation over the next three years. ''It's like Russian
roulette for anybody who flies,'' Bradford says. ''You never
know when your number is up.''
During the past 10 weeks, a dozen physicians
and medical experts have testified for the plaintiffs that
the flight attendants' central nervous systems have been damaged
by exposure to organophosphates, a class of chemicals used
in hydraulic fluid and jet engine lubrication oil. Organophosphates
are used in pesticides and nerve gas.
Gordon has introduced evidence showing
how the APU can superheat leaked fluids into a toxic ''chemical
soup'' and how low concentrations of chemicals breathed on
several different flights can, for some people, be more harmful
than one large exposure.
Keller describes the plaintiffs as
''healthy people who live very active lifestyles.'' Toxicologist
Carl Mackerer testified that a flight attendant could work
in a ''visible mist environment'' for ''two hours a day, seven
days a week, 52 weeks a year, for more than two years without
sustaining . . . a delayed neurotoxic reaction.''
Plaintiffs' attorney Elder notes that
even though Alaska, Honeywell and Boeing do not admit wrongdoing,
each has taken steps to reduce opportunities for chemicals
to mix with cabin air.
''They've probably solved the specific
instance of seal incompatibility, but seals still sometimes
leak, and the air inlet is still down there on the belly of
the plane,'' Elder says. ''I think it happens less frequently
than it used to -- but it still happens.''
Whatever the jury in Seattle decides,
some flight attendants feel they've already won. ''For so
long, they've tried to cover it up and make us think it was
all in our heads, '' Nixon says. ''It was so gratifying to
get on the stand and tell what happened to us.''