A concerning incident in which both pilots on a British Airways flight between London Gatwick and Paphos in Cyprus were nearly incapacitated has been reported by the Aviation Herald – a service that tracks and records aviation accidents. The incident, which occurred on the 19th of October, resulted in both pilots being admitted to hospital and then refusing to fly on the same aircraft the following day when they returned to London as passengers.
British Airways confirmed that the pilots requested a priority landing as a precaution but that the plane landed without incident and all passengers and crew disembarked normally.
The worrying incident started as the Airbus A320 single-aisle aircraft was making its descent towards Paphos when the First Officer detected an unusual smell in the flight deck that he likened to onion bhajis. But while the Captain couldn’t smell the strange odour, it took just 30-seconds before the co-pilot “felt his arms and legs were tingling” and then reported feeling like he was about to faint.
So concerned was the First Officer that he immediately donned his emergency oxygen mask, which unlike the cabin drop-down oxygen system, is air-tight so as to keep out hazardous fumes and smoke. The First Officer even declared himself incapacitated, although unusually the Captain didn’t make any acknowledgement to this alarming announcement.
That’s likely because the Captain had apparently been affected by the strange odour as well. “After a couple of seconds the captain finally reacted stating very slowly he didn’t feel good, too, and donned his oxygen mask,” the Aviation Herald says of what happened in the flight deck.
During this time, several calls from air traffic control apparently went unnoticed but as you might expect in a so-called “smoke, fire, fumes” event, both pilots “recovered a bit” after donning their oxygen masks. But a concerning twist came when the pilots couldn’t establish two-way communication through the built-in speaker and microphone system in the oxygen masks.
Thankfully, the pilots managed to safely land the plane just 13-minutes after the trouble began. In an attempt to clear the flight deck, the pilots opened the windows immediately after leaving the runway.
Once the aircraft safely got to the gate, the Captain had to immediately use the lavatory, while the First Officer continued feeling a tingling sensation and reported confusion and difficulty to concentrate. A member of cabin crew said she could smell a strong odour of fuel when the flight deck door was opened but said that nothing that been detected in the cabin.
The pilots were transported to hospital where they were both found to have very low blood oxygen saturation and fever.
A similar incident affected the exact same aircraft just over a month before but in that case, visible smoke entered the passenger cabin. The aircraft was flying from Cyprus to London but the pilots decided to divert to Athens where the aircraft remained for about 17-hours before engineers gave it the all-clear to continue its journey to London. There were no reported injuries in that incident.
British Airways told us that engineers would have carried out a variety of tests, which typically involves 151 checks, before clearing the plane to operate again and carry passengers.
At the start of October, there had been 56 reported “fume events” on British Airways operated aircraft in little more than a one month period. In just one day at the start of October, it’s claimed there were a total of 14 fume events in less than 24-hours which all occurred on British Airways operated Airbus A320-family aircraft.
Fume events can be caused by a variety of reasons but the most concerning is when the ‘bleed air’ system becomes contaminated with highly toxic engine oil fumes. Bleed air is a system in which air is fed through the engine and then pumped through an air conditioning unit into the cabin.
In a statement, a spokesperson for British Airways told us:
“The safety of our customers and crew is always our top priority. Our aircraft requested a priority landing as a precaution. We always encourage our colleagues to tell us about any concerns they have, with reports passed onto the Civil Aviation Agency.”
The statement continued: “Every single report is thoroughly investigated, with typically 151 engineering checks before an aircraft is cleared to continue flying. Fume or odour events have been found to be caused by a wide range of issues, including burnt food in the oven, aerosols and e-cigarettes, strongly-smelling food in cabin bags, and de-icing fluid.”
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.