Unite chief in public inquiry call to allay health fea...

Unite chief in public inquiry call to allay health fears over cabin air safety

21 April 2015

Britain’s largest union, Unite, today (21 April 2015) called for a public inquiry into the health effects of ‘fume events’ on airliners amid warnings that there is insufficient monitoring and research into aerotoxic syndrome. 

Speaking to ITV News, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said that more needed to be done to understand illnesses caused by exposure to contaminated cabin air on jet aircraft and that airlines should be required to monitor air quality during all flights. 

Announcing that Unite had set up a helpline for its 20,000 cabin crew members on aerotoxic syndrome, McCluskey told ITV News that the union was also establishing a fume event register to monitor and collect data on fume incidents. 

The union which represents cabin crew across the airline industry said it was responding to mounting concern among its members and was supporting the family of Matthew Bass through the inquest into his death. Matthew, a Unite member who worked as cabin crew for two airlines in a 15 year career, died suddenly last January, aged just 34.

Speaking to ITV News Len McCluskey said that it is Unite’s “intention to make certain that aerotoxic syndrome doesn’t become a silent killer,” saying that “literally all of our cabin crew members will have experienced a fume event at some time. It occurs not regularly, but it occurs sufficiently often for people to be concerned about.”

He went on to add that “we want debate and discussion, we want to make certain that manufacturers looking to the future of aviation start to develop new methods of producing aeroplanes.”

Since the 1950s jet engines have been designed to take air from the engine and use it to supply the cabin. Most modern aircraft work in the same way, so in the event of a leak fumes can end up inside the aircraft in what is commonly known as a ‘fume event’. Repeated exposure to ‘fume events’ is believed to cause aerotoxic syndrome (see notes). 

Calling for a public inquiry, Len McCluskey told ITV news that: “We want the manufacturers and airlines to treat this [aerotoxic syndrome] seriously and we are not going to allow a position where our members and indeed members of the public are exposed in a way that people simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘well there is nothing wrong’.

“We don’t want to constantly have fatalities of decent working people, who go to work and should be protected, to build up and up and up before somebody decides to finally say ‘well perhaps we should do something about this’.”

Len McCluskey’s interview airs this evening on ITV news at 6:30pm and 10pm and is part of a report by ITV’s business editor Joel Hills into the latest developments on aerotoxic syndrome. 


For further information please contact Unite head of media and campaigns Alex Flynn on 020 3371 2066 or 07967 665869. 

Notes to editors:

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey. 

What is aerotoxic syndrome?

• Aerotoxic syndrome is the term given to the illness caused by exposure to contaminated air in jet aircraft.
Air enters aircraft through the jet engines, a process known as ‘bleed air’.
In this process bleed air contaminants can become mixed in with the air due to failures in the seals within the engines, and this results in fumes or smoke entering the cabin (and is known in the industry as ‘a fume event’).

Such contaminants include engine oil, hydraulic fuel and anti-freezing fluid, all of which contain a number of harmful chemicals.
Symptoms which can arise from exposure include fatigue, blurred vision, headaches, memory loss and nausea to name but a few.

Recent developments

• A senior coroner recently issued a warning to the industry urging action to avoid further deaths caused by toxic fumes in cabin air.
Unite is acting for the family of Matthew Bass with a preliminary hearing scheduled with the Coroner for this summer.

The problem

• There has been knowledge that heated jet engine oil causes problems since 1954.
The airline industry fails to recognise the problem.
There is insufficient monitoring and research.

New technology

• The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner removes the problem because instead of bleed air it has a system whereby air is supplied directly from the atmosphere and not through the engines.