Alaska Airlines jet flew repeatedly
with fouled air

By Byron Acohido - Seattle Times staff reporter
Friday, January 21, 2000, 07:37 a.m. Pacific

A recent incident in which a chemical mist filled the cabin of an Alaska Airlines jet has flight attendants again battling the airline over the safety of airplane air.

A few seconds after Alaska Flight 95 took off Jan. 4 from Portland on a predawn trip to Seattle, passengers' call buttons erupted in a chorus. From his rear jump seat, flight attendant Steve Patronsky could see and smell the strange fog thickening in the cabin of the 737-400.

He notified the captain by intercom that there was "smoke in the cabin," and then, with a blanket wrapped around his face, he walked up the aisle handing out pillows and blankets and instructing passengers to breathe through the makeshift filters.

The jet returned safely to Portland in about 10 minutes. It was ferried without passengers to Seattle, where mechanics discovered a blown seal in the right engine. At high thrust during takeoff, lubrication oil had leaked from the engine into the air-supply system, creating the mist Patronsky mistook for smoke.

Mechanics confirmed the same leak had caused problems on two immediately preceding flights. Flight attendants had reported misting and odd chemical smells when the plane, aircraft No. 771, flew Jan. 3 from Oakland to Orange County. Another crew reported odd smells on the flight from Orange County to Portland that afternoon.

A long-running dispute

Alaska's decision to twice dispatch the plane without confirming the source of the mist and smells - and the company's insistence that no crew members or passengers were exposed to any health hazards - has aggravated an 11-year dispute between flight attendants and the airline.

Since 1989, Alaska flight attendants have filed more than 900 workers' compensation claims for headaches, dizziness, disorientation, fatigue, memory loss and other problems they believe stem from tainted cabin air.

For years, the cause of the illnesses remained a mystery. But in the past two years, the union has amassed airline maintenance records showing a pattern of hydraulic fluid and jet-engine lubrication oil periodically leaking into the air-supply system of Alaska jets - mostly on Boeing McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s, but also on Boeing 737s and on Boeing 727s, which the airline no longer flies.

The airline characterizes the consecutive incidents aboard aircraft 771 as a rare occurrence that posed no serious health risks.

"While it is certainly regrettable this engine experienced a problem that resulted in discomfort and alarm to flight attendants, it is an unfortunate, infrequent, but expected occurrence that mechanical malfunctions happen," Holly Geiger, Alaska's employee safety and health manager, wrote to the flight attendants union last week.

Geiger's memo infuriated union officials.

Twenty-six flight attendants are suing Alaska for failing to warn employees of a serious workplace hazard. Their attorney, Randy Gordon, has been compiling evidence that toxic organophosphate compounds used in hydraulic fluid and jet lubrication oil, when mixed with cabin air, can seriously impair some people.

Airline officials counter they know of no medical studies conclusively linking jet fluids to specific ailments.

Meanwhile, the union and company continue waging an increasingly acrimonious war over compensation benefits requested by flight attendants claiming "air-quality" injuries.

"Saying these air-quality exposures cause flight attendants and passengers mere discomfort and alarm only serves to show Alaska doesn't take this seriously," said Joni Benson Graves, spokeswoman for the Alaska Airlines chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants.

The case of aircraft 771

Alaska's handling of aircraft 771's blown engine seal speaks to how thorny the entire issue of bad cabin air has become for the airline.

Soon after the plane took off from Oakland the morning of Jan. 3 bound for Orange County, flight attendants and passengers complained about the appearance of a mysterious haze and offensive chemical odors.

"I saw what appeared to be fog consuming the entire length of the aircraft," flight attendant Leslie Samler described in her report. "I felt nauseous, my fingers and face tingled, I felt lightheaded, my chest was heavy, and the taste in my mouth was like no other."

The haze and odor dissipated, then recurred on approach to landing. Alaska grounded the plane in Orange County most of the day as mechanics pored over its air-supply system, which siphons hot, compressed air directly from the engines, cools the air, then circulates it through the cabin.

Unable to duplicate the problem, mechanics released the jet for a late-afternoon flight to Portland, maintenance records show.

Air expert comes aboard

Meanwhile, the airline flew Frank Reardon, an industrial hygienist with Seattle-based consultant Schumacher and Associates, to Orange County with instructions to collect air samples on aircraft 771's flight to Portland.

Company spokesman Jack Evans said the airline routinely tries to gather air samples after it receives a report of bad cabin air as part of a comprehensive effort to confirm a problem and pinpoint a cause.

There was no misting during the Orange County-to-Portland flight, but the flight attendants, Reardon and many passengers noticed a pungent odor for most of the two-hour trip.

One passenger, Karl Barnes of Portland, described the odor as a "very nasty, funky smell, like somebody's dirty diaper."

"I went to use the bathroom, and it smelled better in there than outside," Barnes said. "It seemed to get worse and worse."

Barnes said he developed a nasal irritation and a cough and was treated by a doctor for cold symptoms after the flight.

In Portland, mechanics replaced filters on a device that mixes exhausted cabin air with fresh outside air. Again, ground tests failed to duplicate the problem. So the aircraft was cleared to fly passengers the following morning, records show.

It wasn't until the jet was ferried to Alaska's maintenance headquarters in Seattle - following the aborted departure from Portland - that the blown engine seal was discovered. The engine was replaced and the jet put back into service.

'You don't just shut the hood'

The union contends aircraft 771 should never have left Orange County or Portland carrying the crew and passengers.

"Clearly, something was wrong with the aircraft," said Graves, the union spokeswoman. "You don't just shut the hood and keep going. If you don't find it on initial inspection, you keep looking - especially when you're talking about locking passengers and crew inside the cabin."

Airline officials counter that chemical smells can sometimes turn out to be nothing more than nail-polish remover spilling inside a carry-on bag.

"We had no indication what the potential cause was at first," Evans said. "Airplanes are complicated beasts. When anything goes wrong with a complicated system like the air-conditioning system, you may not know what's going on until you pull things apart several times."

What of the air samples?

The results of Reardon's air sampling won't be available until the end of this month, Evans said. But other tests done by Schumacher and Associates for the airline show lubrication oil mist or fumes generally do not pose undue health risks to crew or passengers, Evans said.

"It's a discomfort issue," Evans said. "You may have burning eyes or a burning sensation in your lungs, but from what we've been told by the manufacturers of these products, as well as by industrial hygienists we've retained and medical experts we've talked to, these exposures do not pose any serious health hazards."

Union officials question the validity of any studies or reports paid for by the airline.

"For them to say this is an occasional, rare thing and virtually therapeutic is insulting," said Graves.

Comment from Indoor Air Technologies, Inc.
Using ECHO Air to pass the ventilation air through the cabin envelope prior to its entry into the cabin system will mitigate this problem through filtration and absorption of the oil air contaminants.