View Full Version : DC-9 MD-80 Fume Lawsuit

9th May 2002, 20:17
I've pasted below 37.24% of a long front page article that appeared
in today's USA Today. The whole article can be found here:


The print edition also contains a panel that discusses some
related issues, including investigations in Australia and
Sweden of BAe 146 fume problems.
USA Today, 9 May 2002

SEATTLE -- Twenty-six current and former Alaska Airlines
flight attendants say they have suffered severe neurological damage
from being repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals on MD-80 flights
during the 1980s and 1990s. The case is expected to go to the jury
this month.

Last year, the Alaska flight attendants won a $725,000 out-of-court
settlement from Alaska Airlines, and now they're going after two of
the nation's biggest companies: Boeing and Honeywell.

The plaintiffs contend both companies have known for decades that the
MD-80 and DC-9 have design flaws that make it easy for leaking chemical
fluids to get sucked into the auxiliary power unit, or APU, and mix
with cabin air. The APU is a small turbine engine used to generate
electricity and circulate cabin air before takeoff.

Boeing inherited responsibility for the MD-80 and DC-9 models when it
bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Honeywell owns AlliedSignal, which
made the APU.

Both companies dispute the flight attendants' claims. They say fumes
that enter the passenger cabin don't contain enough chemicals to cause
harm. The lawsuit is believed to be the first to assert that an
aircraft maker is responsible for the quality of the air breathed by
passengers and airline crews. Jets built in the 1980s and since use
50% recirculated cabin air, instead of 100% outside air, as earlier
models do.

The Alaska flight attendants point to evidence the problem goes well
beyond their airline's jets. A July 1996 Alaska Airlines maintenance
document, introduced during the trial, identifies 15 other airlines
reporting instances of ''fluids entering APU air intake'' on DC-9s
and MD-80s and resulting in ''associated passenger/crew complaints
including illnesses.'' Among the most well-known airlines cited were
Alitalia, American, Swissair, TWA and US Airways.

To gauge how often air quality problems are reported on DC-9s and
MD-80s, USA TODAY checked the Federal Aviation Administration's
Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs) database. The FAA requires airlines
to file the one-page documents each time a mechanical problem arises.
They are an imperfect indicator because some airlines are more rigorous
about filing them than others. From 1974 through mid-2001, eight U.S.
carriers -- American, Northwest, TWA, Delta, Continental, US Airways,
Midwest Express and Alaska -- reported 1,051 incidents of fumes, smoke,
haze, mist or odors entering the cabin air supply system of DC-9s and

The DC-9/MD-80 isn't the only model with cabin air problems. Through
the 1990s, ''air quality incidents'' have been reported on
Airbus 320s, Boeing DC-10s, 737s, 757s and the British Aerospace
BAe 146, other airline maintenance records and union surveys of airline
crews show.

In October, the British Air Line Pilots Association surveyed 93 crews
who reported more than 1,600 events of fumes reaching the flight deck
on Boeing 757s.

The events ranged from pilots ''noticing some smells'' and a few
''serious incidents where crews had to put on oxygen masks,'' says
Bruce D'Ancey, assistant technical secretary for the union.

[Design flaws] begin with the placement of the APU's air inlet, the
rectangular opening through which the unit draws in fresh air, in a
''6 o'clock'' position at the rear belly of the fuselage. [Plaintiff's
lawyers] contend that as McDonnell Douglas incorporated improvements
to the 1960s-era DC-9, it should have heeded advice in a 1974
installation handbook suggesting the air inlet ought to be moved.

That's because hydraulic fluid lines running throughout the aircraft
invariably leak fluid into the belly, which is designed with small
''weep'' holes so such fluid can drain out. Gravity and motion can
draw fluid toward the rear belly, where the air inlet sucks it in like
a vacuum. The APU then compresses the fluid and mixes it with air
delivered into the plane's ventilation system.

''The least favorable location is an inlet located well aft of the
bottom surface of the fuselage,'' the installation handbook warns.
''Fluids likely to be ingested with this type of inlet include those
that may be spilled within the aircraft fuselage.''

SAE, a group that sets industrial standards for lubricants, reinforced
that warning in a 1981 advisory: ''APU inlets should not be located on
the bottom of the fuselage where there is maximum exposure to . . .
fluid leakage.''

But it wasn't until after Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997
that omething was done. In 1999, more than a year after the Bradford
lawsuit was filed, Boeing certified the latest version of the MD-80
and renamed it the Boeing 717, with one telling change: The APU air
inlet was raised to one side, in the 2 o'clock position, of the
fuselage, where it is unlikely to suck up leaking fluids.

The FAA in recent years has required airlines using DC-9s and MD-80s
to install metal strips and drain tubes near the air inlet to help
direct leaked fluids away from it. An FAA order in September 2000
makes reference to ''reports of smoke and odor . . . due to
hydraulic fluid leaking in the APU inlet, and subsequently into the
air conditioning system.'' The order requires airlines to strengthen
hydraulic lines prone to cracking, ''which could result in smoke and
odors in the passenger cabin or cockpit.''

When smoke or odor is reported on an American Airlines MD-80, the
carrier removes the plane from service to conduct a ''burn-out''
procedure designed to remove all remnants of the leaked fluid from
the air supply pumps and ducts. American has retrofitted its fleet
of 360 MD-80s with higher-powered APUs and installed all available
diverters and upgradeable ducting and fluid lines, says American
spokesman John Hotard.

Ignition Override
10th May 2002, 05:07
No kidding. On most or all of those planes, with the APU Master Switch in Run or Start positions, the APU ram door opens downward before the actual start sequence begins until about 95 percent RPM, then it closes and the non-ram doors open, being flush with the fuselage. They are on the bottom at the rear of the fuselage. On the ground with the Ram Air switch on, the right pack switch (best used in HP bleed off) can push air from the tail compartment into the plane, but it is not cooled. Whether this technique means the air is filtered better compared to APU compressed air via the bleed air valve, maybe the mechanics/engineers know the answer.

I hate to think how much fluid from the two aft lavs could/might have dripped underneath over the last 30 years or more before it evaporated or froze.

Few Cloudy
10th May 2002, 11:22
Can't have been too bad if it took 'em twenty years to notice it. Sounds like a bored lawyer on the job again...

10th May 2002, 15:36
Let's hope they never find out about the 146..........:rolleyes:

sightboard run
11th May 2002, 07:57
too late...

22nd May 2002, 19:29
On Monday the jury decided against the claim of the 26 Alaska
Airlines FAs who said that MD-80s have design defects that caused
them to be poisoned by toxic fumes mixing with cabin air. The jury
decided 11 to 1 in favor of Boeing and Honeywell.

The medical complaints were headaches, extreme fatigue, chronic
disorientation, memory loss, respiratory problems, balance problems,
blurred vision, goiters, tremors, ulcerated oesophagi, vomiting
blood, loss of consciousness, and partial paralysis. Several of the
plaintiffs left the airline, some because they could no longer work.
It was asserted in the trial that the FAs' central nervous systems
were damaged by exposure to organophosphates, a class of chemicals
used in hydraulic fluid and jet engine lubrication oil (not to
mention pesticides and nerve gas).

In response to the comment of Few Cloudy above, "Can't have been
too bad if it took 'em twenty years to notice it.", the timeframe
is typical in epidemiology. Physiological responses to many toxins
are not linear functions of exposure. Years can pass before any
chronic symptoms are noticable. Once symptoms present themselves the
harm is substantial. In the Australian BAe 146 inquiry there was a
good deal of expert testimony on the effects of prolonged exposure
to low concentrations of organophosphates.

Proving cause directly is not possible. All the symptoms described
by the plaintiffs can be caused by many things. It is not possible
to pinpoint a specific biochemical mechanism as a direct cause.
One juror who was interviewed said that the plaintiffs failed to
prove that their illnesses were caused by leaked hydraulic fluid
getting sucked in by the APU or seals breaking down and leaking
lubrication oil inside the APU. "Nobody had that chain," she said.

If the chain was not there then I wonder about the legal strategy
that was employed. Twelve medical experts were called to testify
for the plaintiffs. That strikes me as questionable since medical
experts, no matter how many you trot out, cannot establish cause
and effect in specific incidences. Once one or two experts are called
on to establish that organophosphates are known to cause the
plaintiffs' complaints (which is not refutable) then you only need
one expert statistician to demonstrate that with a high degree of
likelihood the cabin fumes caused the illnesses. This being a civil
suit I think that the legal standard was a "preponderance of the
evidence" or something like that. If so, then with over 900 FAs
reporting adverse reactions of varying severity I suspect that it
would have been child's play for any competent statistician to meet
the burden.

Incidentally, the sole dissenting juror relied on common sense:
"They went in the plane healthy, and they came out sick," he said.
"It was sort of cut and dried for me." Another note: as the jury
began deliberations, the defense offered a $2.5 million settlement.
It was rejected. The FAs settled earlier with Alaskan Airlines for
$725000. Of that amount the 26 FAs received, on average, $4,298.77.
You can guess where the other $613,232 went!

Few Cloudy
23rd May 2002, 06:27
So how come this only happened in Alaska?

23rd May 2002, 10:01
Fewcloudy, can I assume you don't fly the 146 ? If you did then you'd know that there is an on going problem with this type.

I personally have had 3 incidents that required the flight crew going on O2 in the last 18 months, these were reported and ASRs and Air quality reports filed.
All the crews, flight deck and cabin crew, on each occassion were sent to hospital to have very painful arterial blood samples taken.
All the results came back negative. Were the Doctors testing for the right thing I ask myself ?

This a very hot potato in our company now with a lot of captains very reluctant to report any incidents. The companys view is that the problem has been solved with the regular maintainance programe on both packs and the APU / Air conditioning systems.

However, there have been more than a few occassions when I have mentioned that I could smell fumes but nothing was done about it. After the 3rd or 4th sector it has very noticeably affected my thinking and general well being and I was glad to be getting off the A/C after those duties.

Only just recently aircraft ABC, XYZ and CDE, have had problems. So the problem is still there, it hasn't gone away.:( :confused: :mad: :mad:

25th May 2002, 20:18
Few Cloudy, "So how come this only happened in Alaska?"
I take it you mean "Why did only the Alaska Airlines FAs sue?"
Fair question. The Boeing-Honeywell defence team appears to have
advanced a theory. From the post-verdict juror interviews I think
it reasonable to infer that the defence strategy was two-fold:
1) there is no proof that the organophosphates circulating in the
a/c caused the damage to the central nervous systems of the
plaintiffs, and 2) even if they did, the toxins entered the cabin
not because of a design defect but because of the airline's
inadequate maintenance. The comments of one juror indicate she
was swayed by the first argument. The comments of a second juror
indicate that the majority of the jury members accepted the second
argument. That suggests that the Boeing-Honeywell legal team
presented evidence implicating the maintenance of Alaska Airlines.
If that theory is correct (about which I have no idea) then it
would answer your question.

Here is another theory. Alaska Airlines attitude toward air quality
issues may have put their FAs in a more litigious state of mind
than their counterparts elsewhere. At the bottom of the first post
in this thread there is a description of American Airlines
response to cabin odors and mists. Several reported incidents
suggest that Alaska did not always react as quickly to correct
such problems. There may have been a perception on the part
of the FAs that the airline was not paying sufficient attention
to their health concerns. (As I hope my language indicates, this
theory is hypothetical.)

Smokie, "All the results came back negative. Were the Doctors
testing for the right thing I ask myself?" I believe that
it is considered impractical to assay for specific poisons. They
were probably looking at the level of an enzyme, AChE, an
unintentionally ironic abbreviation of acetylcholinesterase,
that is found in blood. This enzyme is a catalyst for
the transmission of nerve impulses. Exposure to organophosphates
decreases AChE function. When properly conducted the AChE test
provides an early warning for OP exposure because decreased levels
of AChE can be detected prior to the onset of symptoms. A "negative"
test result means that the subject has a normal AChE level.

The problem with the test is that the range that is considered
normal is quite wide. The literature claims that false positives
occur as a result. These happen when an individual has a naturally
low AChE level. The literature also claims that false negatives
are less frequent and that may be true but I am skeptical. If a
subject had a naturally high AChE level then considerable depression
could occur before he passed to the low end of normal. In a monitoring
program that California set up (for agricultural workers) the
first step was to get a baseline AChE reading. Perhaps you could
get and retain the result of the first blood test. It would be
useful to have for comparison if you ever had to undergo a second

Any needed corrections or elaborations are welcome. Biochemistry is
not my thing, just data.

25th May 2002, 21:11
Anyone interested in the 146 and 757 fumes problems can read about their effects here (www.aopis.org)