Friday, March 1, 2013

Aerotoxic Syndrome: A Landmark for Aviation Law?

Brought to you by our friends at ASB Law

Flying is the safest form of travel. It’s a truism we all trot out when someone we know expresses fears about stepping on a plane. Of course most fears about flying centre on that rare occurrence in the modern aviation field: a plane crash. But with the recent headlines about the legal battle between the lawyers of two deceased pilots and British Airways (BA), it seems that the aviation sector could be facing a more pernicious killer in the form of aerotoxic syndrome.

Aviation law is notoriously fast-paced and difficult for all but specialist aviation lawyers to navigate, but lawyers representing Richard Westgate, one of the pilots who recently passed away, believe that BA could be held liable for his death under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations (COSHH). The grounds for this are based on the claim that BA does not directly monitor the air quality on its flights. At the present time BA have stated they are unaware of any issues related to air quality on its flights, and that they meet all current regulations for safety.

Aerotoxic syndrome is believed to occur when the cabin air in a plane becomes contaminated with fumes from engine oil and other chemicals. In most aircraft the cabin air is provided via bleed air from the plane’s engines, and if this becomes contaminated then the toxins could have both short and long-term effects on passengers and crew.

To date definite links have been difficult to prove. While many believe aerotoxic syndrome to be a genuine condition, and of far higher prevalence than currently reported, others claim that incidence of cabin air contamination is extremely rare. The UK Committee on Toxicity reports that such “fume events” occur in about 1 in every 100 flights.  It is believed that pilots and cabin crew are therefore at greater potential risk due to their massively increased flying time compared to the general public.

Recent official documentation from the Civil Aviation Authority does show that crew have to use oxygen masks as often as five times a week to avoid effects on their health and ability to perform their roles on board. Such information, and recent cases in both Australia and America where flight attendants won settlements from airlines due to ill health from fume inhalation, mean that those in aviation law will be watching the proceedings carefully.

If Mr Westgate’s lawyers manage to win their case it would represent a landmark in aviation law, setting a legal precedent that could result in a surge in claims against airlines. Specialist aviation lawyers are always best placed to handle such disputes. Their expertise in the field gives them greater insight into cases, which results in greater success rates for clients.

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