On Monday, four flight attendants filed a suit against Boeing, alleging that they were sickened on a 2013 Alaska Airlines flight when toxic air entered the cabin. As if flying wasn't stressful enough.
The flight attendants—Vanessa Woods, Faye Oskardottir, Darlene Ramirez, and Karen Neben—and Neben's husband allege that shoddily-designed Boeing planes allowed polluted air to be sucked onto the plane. All Boeing planes, aside from the 787 Dreamliner, use "bleed air" on flights, or fresh air pulled into flights by the plane's engines and mixed with recycled cabin air, explains the Wall Street Journal. The problem with "bleed air" is that it can sometimes accidentally pull in air dirtied by engine oil and other toxins.
During that flight in question, which was diverted to Chicago to treat the sick flyers and employees, the flight attendants began to feel ill. The Cook County Record describes the events of that days:
The complaint asserts the flight attendants, upon boarding, noticed a smell likened to 'burnt oil' or 'dirty socks' – smells the complaint notes are characteristic of the toxins allegedly drawn into the aircraft under Boeing’s design.
After the plane took off, people started to feel sick. Again, the Record recounts:
Neben allegedly complained to the captain 'her throat was burning.' Oskardottir later allegedly fainted and began to vomit, and Woods 'passed out' in the passenger cabin after helping move patients away from the rear of the craft, where the toxins were allegedly concentrated.
Health issues allegedly stemming from the incident have forced two of the flight attendants to stop working, and one to live permanently with her mother, says the complaint. The suit accuses Boeing of, among other things, negligence and fraud.
A Boeing representative told Fusion that they have no comment on the lawsuit, but that previous, independent studies have shown cabin air meets safety standards.
But this is not the first time Boeing has been sued for flight attendants being allegedly poisoned while aboard a flight. In 2009, former American Airlines flight attendant Terry Williams sued Boeing and the now-defunct McDonnell Douglas for exposing her to toxic air on a flight in 2007. CNN wrote in 2009:
Williams, then a veteran American Airlines flight attendant of 17 years, noticed a 'misty haze type of smoke' on Flight 843 as it taxied toward a gate in Dallas, Texas. That 'fume event,' as it is known, and the physical maladies she felt afterward drove Williams, 40, to file a product liability lawsuit… Her claim: Toxins in the cabin's air made her sick, and a design flaw — the lack of filters and sensors — left her unprotected.
That suit was settled in 2011. But concerns over the safety of the "bleed air" system date back to at least the late 1970s, when a paper titled "Human intoxication following inhalation exposure to synthetic jet lubricating oil" note in an abstract that "a previously healthy member of an aircraft flight crew was acutely incapacitated during flight with neurologic impairment and gastrointestinal distress…. the etiology of his symptoms was related to an inhalation exposure to aerosolized or vaporized synthetic lubricating oil arising from a jet engine of his aircraft."
And, apparently, a Boeing employee wrote in an internal letter that "we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take interest" in dangers posed by toxic air. Encouraging.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.