CHICAGO — There have been complaints for decades about the system most Boeing commercial jetliners use to pump oxygen into the cabin; but hours before the Chicago-based company was scheduled to stand trial to answer claims toxic air contributed to a person’s death, Boeing settled.
That means the public will not get to see internal documents and other evidence the plaintiff’s attorneys argued demonstrate Boeing has known about the potential for dangerous air to mix into the cabin of its airplanes.
“He came home and told me he had a ‘fumes event’ and the aircraft had filled with smoke,” Martha Weiland said of an experience her pilot husband Ron had in 2016. He was the pilot of an American Airlines 767 at the time. The cockpit crew fired-up the jet’s engines only to have the airplane overcome with smoke and fumes. Initial burning in his eyes, nose and throat eventually changed to more serious symptoms in the months that followed, according to allegations made in Weiland’s lawsuit against Boeing. “It started-out with slurring of his words occasionally then it progressed to him not being able to speak at all, him not being able to swallow and finally into the loss of the use of his legs,” Martha Weiland recalled. Her husband died in 2019.
All Boeing commercial jets – except the 787 Dreamliner – use what’s known as a “bleed air system” in which outside air is sucked through the engine and essentially bled-off and diverted into the cabin and recirculated with the air passengers and crew are already breathing. Under normal circumstances there aren’t issues. However, if there’s an engine problem such as an oil leak, potentially toxic fumes can fill the cabin.
“Boeing has known since 1953 toxic air can get into the cabin,” Weiland’s attorney Zoe Littlepage told WGN Investigates on the eve of the trial. “Monday is the first time some of those internal documents will see the light of the day, this is the very first trial of contaminated air where some of the documents that have been hidden in Boeing’s file cabinets can come out and people can see them.”
In 2016, WGN Investigates reported on other concerns, complaints and lawsuits filed over the air issue. The report quoted a 2007 message from a person who worked in Boeing’s environmental controls department that discussed pilots’ complaints about smoke and smells that may be the by-product of hot turbine oil. The Boeing staffer wrote with apparent frustration “Bottomline is I think we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take interest.”
Then – and now – Boeing says there’s nothing to fear. The company released a statement that says in part: “The cabin air inside Boeing airplanes is safe. Independent researchers, universities, industry groups, and government agencies have conducted extensive research on cabin air quality. The results repeatedly demonstrate that contaminant levels on aircraft are generally low and that health and safety standards are met. Based on that research, the world’s five leading aerospace medical associations have rejected a connection between cabin air and significant health effects, and no aviation regulator has determined that additional safety regulations are required.”
Martha Weiland was seeking millions of dollars in damages from Boeing as well as changes to the cabin air system. However, terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. Weiland’s attorneys and Boeing declined to comment on why they chose to avert a trial.