New details have emerged of what could have been a serious “fume event” onboard a British Airways aircraft flying from San Francisco to London Heathrow on the 24th October 2016. The Airbus A380 superjumbo, carrying 388 passengers and 25 crew, was forced to divert and make an unscheduled landing due to a medical emergency after a “strong obnoxious smell” entered the passenger cabin.
The aircraft made an impromptu landing in Vancouver less than two hours after departing San Francisco, where 25 patients, including 20 cabin crew and five passengers, were transported to hospitals across the city. Some of the patients reported feeling sick from breathing in “toxic fumes” and local authorities said they were suffering the effects of smoke inhalation.
Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Transportation Bureau (TSB) opened an investigation to find out exactly what had happened, but after extensive “troubleshooting” no faults with the aircraft could be found. The A380, registration G-XLEB returned to service a short time later and remains flying passengers today.
Now, the Aviation Herald says it has recently received further information about exactly what happened on that flight:
“About 40-50 minutes into the flight an odour of glue type and burning plastics was detected near main deck door 4L. A family nearby had just oblate oil on their baby, however, the smell of the oblate oil was different to the odour detected near the door,” the AVHerald reports.
A short time later, a member of cabin crew who was in an upper deck galley started to vomit. Other flight attendants started to check their surroundings, including ovens and the trash compactors, in a desperate attempt to work out what was causing the smell.
“Suffering headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea”
Before long, the AVHerald says “other cabin crew members began to perform abnormally” and complained of suffering headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and having a metallic taste in their mouth. The report claims the flight attendants “showed itchy red eyes and became increasingly forgetful, aggressive and confused.”
By the time the Captain decided to declare a medical emergency and divert, 12 cabin crew were suffering ill effects and one had even been put on oxygen. Other cabin crew were frantically talking with Medlink, an aviation medical advice service with specially trained Emergency Room doctors who can provide advice and support.
But here’s where things get really concerning. The AVHerald reports:
“Cabin crew were slow in responding to the diversion and prepare the cabin due to inability to function normally and needed to be queried and guided by other crew. After the diversion was changed to Vancouver, which added another hour of flight time, 8 cabin crew were able to get on oxygen, a few other cabin crew went to go to the toilet but were subsequently found anywhere else in the aircraft but the lavatories.”
“Close to being incapacitated”
“Cabin crew became concerned they couldn’t cover the doors for landing with that many cabin crew already affected and close to being incapacitated.”
Once safely on the ground, paramedics became concerned with all the cabin crew and insisted they all be transported to local hospitals for assessment. The crew were declared fit to fly as passengers the following day.
While the cause of this incident still remains a mystery today, it again raises serious questions about so-called ‘aerotoxic syndrome’. The Unite Union which represents many British Airways cabin crew says it is currently pursuing over 100 legal cases on behalf of crew who say they’ve been involved in fume events and subsequently suffered ill-health.
The issue of toxic cabin air, which has long been ignored by the aviation industry, was forced into the spotlight when Matthew Bass, a 34-year old flight attendant for British Airways died unexpectedly several years ago. A British Coroner has recently ruled Bass died after suffering a cardiac arrest – possibly triggered by alcohol consumption.
The Daily Mail reports that “Mr Bass had gone into cardiac arrest after aspirating, caused by a high alcohol intake.”
However, his parents had believed Matthew was suffering from aerotoxic syndrome. They paid for a second post-mortem which revealed he had toxins called organophosphates in his body. These toxins are found in things like aircraft engine oil and when heated they could enter an aircraft cabin as fumes.
Yet, after a lengthy inquest, no link could be found between Matthew’s death and aerotoxic syndrome or the organophosphates. Berkshire senior coroner Peter Bedford explained:
“What is clear to me and that is now accepted, to the family’s credit, is that none of the evidence available to me, for a variety of reasons, is that the cause of Mr Bass’s death can, on the balance of probabilities, be in any way explained by the exposure to organophosphates, or any form of poisoning, that led to aerotoxic syndrome.”
In the future, additional testing might be requested when aerotoxic syndrome is suspected as the cause of death. The coroner, in this case, said he will write to the Chief Coroner and ask him to consider alerting other coroners in England and Wales of requesting further tests in similar cases.
“The airline industry needs to face up to it”
“Toxic cabin air is real and is damaging lives. The airline industry needs to face up to its responsibilities and deal with it,” commented Unite’s assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett.
“This significant step by a senior coroner recognises that exposure to toxic cabin air does have an impact on the body and can lead to ill health. All coroners will now be made aware of toxic cabin air and should commit to additional testing so we can get a greater understanding of its effects on cabin crew. ”
In response, a spokesperson for British Airways has said:
“The safety of our customers and crew is always our priority and we would never operate an aircraft if we believed it posed a health or safety risk.”
“Substantial research into cabin air quality has not shown any link to long-term ill health. We will continue to keep across the objective scientific information available.”
Late last year, easyJet made history by officially recognising the effects of what it calls “smell events”, saying that on rare occasions, they can lead to “short-term effects”. The British low-cost airline announced it would start installing new air filters to reduce such incidents and will also develop special detection systems.
However, easyJet maintains that the “balance of scientific opinion remains that there are no long-term health effects.”
This article was republished on May 13th with amended details about the Coroners report into the death of Matthew Bass. It also now contains a comment from British Airways.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.