You may well have seen that American Airlines is currently field testing a new uniform – barely two years after a worldwide rollout of the airline’s current uniform that left as many as 7,000 employees suffering adverse medical reactions to the Twin Hill-produced threads. It’s been an embarrassing, damaging and very expensive episode in the airline’s history but American’s lawyers have been working behind the scenes to have a class action lawsuit against the carrier thrown out… and have so far failed.
The revelations only recently became public after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois had the court documents unsealed and available for anyone to view. Until only a couple of weeks ago, American had been working to have the case thrown out on the basis that key witnesses were in possession of legally privileged material that couldn’t be released – as a result, there would be no evidence and as such the court would be forced to throw the case out.
The case was originally filed over a year ago by lawyers acting on behalf of two American Airlines employees who have suffered reactions to the uniform. As a reminder, it’s suspected that multiple chemicals used in the production of the uniform may be the root cause of the problems – although independent testing has so far failed to prove the chemicals found in the uniforms were present in high enough concentrations to definitely cause medical problems.
Nonetheless, American is in the process of producing a new uniform with a new manufacturer and has introduced a number of stop-gap solutions that includes allowing staffers to wear their own clothes as long as they match the color and look of the uniform.
“This matter involves clear and present—as well as future—dangers posed to the health and well-being of thousands of employees of American Airlines,” the lawsuit reads. “This matter also concerns the safety of those whom American Airlines serves—its passengers.”
“…these uniforms, manufactured by Defendant Twin Hill, pose an unreasonable risk of physical harm including current and future serious health problems to those who wear them and to those who are near to or work in the close quarters of an airplane with those who are wearing the uniforms.”
That’s an important point that American has so far failed to address – because not all staffers have suffered reactions, they’ve continued to wear the Twinn Hill clobber but even being in close proximity to the uniform have affected some employees.
The lawsuit claims as many as 7,000 workers have suffered reactions that ranged from relatively minor concerns such as skin rashes, ear and throat irritation, and headaches, as well as more serious symptoms including fatigue, vertigo, the triggering of various auto-immune conditions, and adverse effects on endocrine as well as liver functions.
In extreme cases, there have been reports of women who had stopped menstruating to commence to menstruate again. In other cases, female staffers have reported losing their hair.
“The sheer volume of complaints that have been made concerning the new American Airlines uniforms, along with the timing of those complaints, is such that the only plausible explanation is that the uniforms are causing the problems at issue.”
Lawyers claim a “synergistic effect” from multiple chemicals found in the uniforms could be causing the ill-effects, while also arguing that current chemical testing fails to take into account “real-world” events such as wearing the uniforms in an aircraft cabin at altitude.
One of the plaintiffs, Thor Zurbriggen, a lead flight attendant was forced to stop wearing his new uniform after just a week after suffering multiple health problems that included ecchymosis (a blood disorder), rashes, respiratory problems, eye and throat irritation, severe fatigue, headaches and vertigo.
Zurbriggen says that in one incident, he started to suffer symptoms after being in the presence of six other flight attendants who continued to wear the Twin Hill uniform. “…he was not capable of fully performing his functions as the premium or lead flight attendant. This threatened the safety of the passengers on board,” the lawsuit reads.
A Boston-based flight attendant is alleged to have been sacked after attendance-related issues stemming from the new uniform.
Independent chemical testing paid for by the Association of Flight Attendants revealed the presence of Pentachlorophenol, Tetrachlorophenol, Trichlorophenols, and free and partially releasable formaldehyde in some uniform items.
As well as monetary damages, the lawsuit is seeking to force American and Twin Hill to set up a long-term medical monitoring program. The legal arguments continue.
The full complaint can be accessed here (PDF document).
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 used by some of the biggest names in journalism.