Something In The Air? -- Secretly Searching Alaska Airlines Records, Employees Find Evidence Of Toxic Leaks

MORE THAN 900 flight attendants have suffered unexplained sickness aboard Alaska Airlines flights in the past decade. The airline disputes their theory that toxic fluid leaks are the cause. But airline records show a pattern of fluid leaks, especially on MD-80s, as well as efforts behind the scenes to fix the problem. -------------------------------

Minutes after Alaska Airlines Flight 117 took off from Sacramento for Seattle on June 30, 1996, Terri Nixon started feeling nauseous.

As the flight attendant looked down the aisle, she realized she wasn't alone in discomfort: Two young children were vomiting. A fellow flight attendant was so pale and disoriented that she had taken a seat in the rear of the plane and was breathing from an oxygen bottle.

Soon, Nixon started losing her bearings. She couldn't sort out passengers' food requests. She deposited their liquor money in the trash. Finally, when asked by an anxious mother to fetch oxygen for her young son, Nixon simply could not do it.

She asked co-worker Kim Kawachi to do it for her. But Kawachi, too, was disoriented: She retrieved the oxygen canister and slung it across her chest, per regulations. Then, instead of taking it to the sick boy, she began serving coffee to first-class passengers - while wearing the oxygen pack.

"We were not in control of our thought processes," Nixon recalls.

Nixon called the captain by intercom and told him what was happening. He had no explanation. The flight wasn't turbulent, and the plane's instruments indicated everything was normal.

By the time the MD-80 landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Nixon's head was throbbing and she struggled to breathe. She stumbled to an employee bathroom and vomited. Moments later, she was joined by attendants Kawachi and Carolee Weaver, both of whom also vomited.

During the next year, Nixon experienced blurred vision, migraines, extreme fatigue, balance problems and short-term memory loss. She slept up to 17 hours a day and had difficulty concentrating for more than a few moments. The simplest tasks - driving home, fixing a meal - were monumental challenges. Ultimately, she went on welfare.

Just what happened to Terri Nixon and the others aboard Flight 117 that day remains a mystery. Alaska Airlines calls it an anomaly that defies explanation.

But her labor union says Nixon is one of more than 900 flight attendants who have suffered mysterious illnesses aboard Alaska flights in the past decade. And union leaders believe they know the cause: toxic jet fluids leaking into the cabin air-ventilation system.

While Alaska officially disputes that theory, maintenance documents show a continuing pattern of leaking fluids, particularly on Alaska's 38 MD-80s. And even while the airline has assured its employees that the leaks pose no health threat, it has been scrambling behind the scenes to fix the problem.

The airline acknowledges receiving some 1,600 reports of "unexplained illness" from crew members and passengers in the past decade, but notes that the reports represent a tiny fraction of the people who've flown on more than a million Alaska flights during those years.

Alaska officials hint privately that the crew members' complaints may be fallout from the airline's history of battling its employee unions.

And while officials admit hydraulic fluid and lubrication oil sometimes get mixed with cabin air, they characterize such incidents as rare and the effects on crew and passengers as inconsequential.

"I'm absolutely convinced there isn't something on our airplanes that is causing our people to be ill," said Ed White, vice president of customer services. "There are people out there who are ill and I don't know why. I wish I did and I wish I could do something for them."

Alaska officials insist the jet fluids are benign. In fact, the fluids are made from organophosphates, a class of chemicals used to make pesticides and nerve gas and which at some levels have been shown to disrupt nerve-cell function.

Still, the evidence that leaking fluids are causing illnesses on airplanes is far from conclusive. Medical experts say what is needed is basic research measuring precisely which types of chemical compounds mix with cabin air when leaks occur and what the effects are on humans.

So far, Alaska has sidestepped such research. Critics say the company is trying to minimize its liability.

Bellevue attorney Randy Gordon represents 26 flight attendants who are collectively suing Alaska. They allege managers callously failed to warn employees of a serious hazard even as the company met with aircraft manufacturers and parts suppliers to try to solve the problem.

As Gordon puts it: "It's as if people in a restaurant got sick eating the Caesar salad and the maitre d' and the waiter and the cook all got together and said, `We've got to fix the Caesar salad but let's continue serving it, let's not tell anybody we're fixing it and let's not help anybody who already got sick.' "


The Alaska workers are not the first to raise the theory of illnesses caused by cabin air on jetliners. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 9,000 flight attendants, has been tracking the hypothesis since 1990. A survey of 300 of its members found seven out of 10 reported getting sick from "bad cabin air."

In Australia, flight attendants are suing the carrier for injuries they blame on fumes pumped into the cabin of an Ansett Airlines plane.

But Alaska is the first U.S. carrier confronted with the issue. And whether or not the claims of a link to illness are legitimate, Alaska is right about one thing: Its often-acrimonious relationship with its unionized workers has been a factor.

The prospect of toxic fumes posing a health threat went largely unexamined until several unions began working together - often surreptitiously - two years ago.

Reports of flight-crew illnesses on Alaska planes began in the late 1980s. In 1993, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded an examination, saying it could offer no explanation.

By the time of Nixon's illness in the summer of 1996, her union, the Association of Flight Attendants, had spent several years futilely investigating hundreds of similar reports. Union volunteers had examined everything from malfunctioning coffee pots and volcanic gases to ozone exposure and cosmic radiation.

Nothing panned out.

Then, in early 1997, a possible explanation emerged - from another union.

Alaska mechanics, many of whom dated or were married to flight attendants, suspected that hydraulic fluid and lubrication oil were leaking from and around a part called the auxiliary power unit, or APU, and being pumped into the cabin.

Designed and manufactured by AlliedSignal, the APU is a small turbine engine tucked into the tail cone. Pilots activate the APU on the ground to supply electrical power and pump air into the cabin. During flight, the APU typically is switched off and the jet engines supply power and cabin air.

The MD-80 - a plane manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas before it was acquired by Boeing and which is scheduled to go out of production next year - is especially vulnerable to leaking fluids being pumped into the cabin. The plane has its two engines mounted on the rear fuselage, alongside the APU.

The mechanics believed leaking hydraulic fluid or lubrication oil was taken up by the APU, compressed, then injected into the cabin air-distribution ducts as a vapor.

Air ducts on jets with leaks could became caked with fluid remnants, which later would be heated by super-hot air drawn from the jet engines. The hot air would cook up a toxic chemical soup, the mechanics reasoned - a soup that would be pumped into the cabin.

Flight attendants, who move up and down the aisles pushing carts and serving meals, would be continually metabolizing small doses of chemicals used to kill insects and incapacitate soldiers. Sedate passengers would be less affected.

In early 1997, a handful of workers with access to Alaska's maintenance-records computer system, called Arctic, decided to look for evidence supporting the APU theory.

At odd moments, they began secretly searching the Arctic system and making printouts of any documents referring to the APU. The computer tappers varied their pattern to cover their tracks, some days printing as many as 40 or 50 documents, other days only a handful.

"We tried to keep this damn thing as quiet as we could," one worker said. "We just started looking for keywords, scrolling through records looking for anything to do with the APU, possible leaks, air-quality problems, smells in the cabin, unusual odors."

Clerks and secretaries helped out by taking extended lunches or coffee breaks at opportune moments, leaving the Arctic terminals unobserved.

The printouts found their way in blank envelopes to the flight attendants' local union office, and ultimately to the union's lawyers.


From his sixth-floor, west-facing Belltown law office, labor lawyer Bill Knowles enjoys a sweeping view of Elliott Bay. He sees a teeming waterfront built on the backs of his clients: tradesmen and service workers who inevitably get into disputes with their bosses or government agencies.

Knowles toiled as a journeyman finish carpenter and carpenters-union activist for a decade before heading off at age 30 to The Evergreen State College and then to the University of Puget Sound Law School.

He hung his shingle in 1987, and in 12 years of tilting at bureaucracies and corporations developed a reputation as a contentious crusader for workers' rights.

In late 1996, a few months after Terri Nixon's ill-fated flight, Knowles was flying to San Francisco aboard an Alaska MD-80 when he overheard flight attendant Leslie Pellegrini grousing to a co-worker that the company had refused to pay her medical bills.

In questioning her, Knowles learned that Pellegrini had reactive-airway disease, a form of asthma, and that she traced it to being overcome by fumes on an MD-80 flight a year earlier.

The conversation piqued Knowles' interest. He contacted the flight-attendants union in Washington, D.C., and learned that dozens of other flight attendants had also reported flight-related illnesses.

Knowles sold the union on retaining him. His assignment was to appeal rejection of some 80 workers-compensation claims by Alaska, which like other large companies self-insures such coverage.

Knowles set his legal assistants to cross-referencing the stacks of documents accumulated by union volunteers over the years.

One assistant noticed a correlation between reports of unexplained illnesses and repairs for fluid leaks on MD-80s, as logged in maintenance records that the the computer tappers had downloaded. Other documents seemed to buttress the link.

For instance, an Aug. 28, 1995, interoffice memo between engineering supervisors John Hoover and Jim Davey noted that "hydraulic fluid leaks in the tail cone" of MD-80s "create the potential for that fluid to directly contaminate the environmental control system or be ingested into the APU inlet and subsequently into the APU bleed air."

Noting the likely result would be "contamination of the passenger cabin air," Hoover described why the airline should be concerned: "Contamination of this nature usually has an impact on delays, cancellations and maintenance activity."

Hoover made no mention of possible harm to passengers or crew members. Yet just two weeks before - on Aug. 14, 1995 - a thick, black haze had poured into the cabin of an MD-80 as the jet touched down in Portland. Many of the 117 people aboard complained of disorientation and nausea.

Among them: Flight attendant Leslie Pellegrini.

"The smoke was so thick I couldn't see more than four or five feet in front of me," Pellegrini recalls. "The passengers were freaking out. They were screaming, standing up, ringing call bells, it was pretty ugly, and we had no information to give them."

Crew members and passengers were exposed to the haze for more than 10 minutes as the jet taxied to the terminal for a normal deplaning.


As early as the spring of 1996, cabin fumes were becoming a higher-profile maintenance problem at Alaska, other records show.

An exchange of letters in April 1996 between Alaska engineering supervisor Davey and McDonnell Douglas General Manager James Jensen referred to weekly conference calls between the airline, McDonnell Douglas and APU supplier AlliedSignal to discuss measures to "preclude the recurrence of fumes/odors in the cabin."

Wrote Davey, who has since been promoted to assistant vice president of engineering: "We have discussed the fact that Alaska Airlines has experienced several incidents of reported fumes or odors in MD-80 aircraft cabins during normal flight and ground operations. The fumes seem to originate from leakage of fuel, engine oil or hydraulic fluid . . . Leaking fluids, mist or vapors are finding their way into the APU inlet and are being distributed through the air conditioning system and into the cabin causing reports of a `burnt oil smell.' "

Despite a series of corrective measures, the problem persisted. On Dec. 19, 1997, a pilot lost control of his steering upon landing an MD-80 at San Francisco International Airport. Four of 63 passengers were slightly injured during an emergency evacuation down inflatable slides. An airport official told reporters at the scene there had been "smoke" in the cabin.

The evacuation became the subject of a Dec. 21, 1997, memo written by then-engineering supervisor John Fowler, who expressed concern about "hydraulic failure and hydraulic mist in the cabin" on the jet.

"Hot questions on the agenda are why does this line keep failing and why did the fluid get into the APU inlet," Fowler wrote.


Like all airlines, Alaska jets use pressurized hydraulic fluid to deflect moveable panels on the wings and tail that help steer the aircraft and to raise and lower the landing gear. Lubrication oil keeps the jet engines and APU parts meshing smoothly.

The hydraulic fluid used by Alaska, Chevron Hyjet IV-A, is a viscous, purple liquid with a sweet odor. It is not particularly flammable, but can irritate the skin, eyes, respiratory system and stomach and cause headaches, according to the federal safety information required for hazardous materials in the workplace.

The lubrication oil, Mobil Jet Oil 254, is blue with a mild odor and also not very flammable. Ingestion, inhalation or skin contact with large amounts can cause nervous-system disorders.

Both fluids contain organophosphates, which can have a faint odor in low concentrations. In many instances of flight attendants turning up ill, the workers reported smelling burnt oil, dirty socks or nail-polish remover in the cabin.

Alaska officials don't deny that small amounts of Chevron Hyjet and Mobil 254 may mix with the cabin air from time to time. But they insist those small leaks pose no health hazard.

Leaks big enough to result in a mist or haze wafting through the cabin can result in exposure to larger dosages of toxic chemicals, Alaska acknowledged, but not enough to do any lasting harm. What the airline refers to as "known events" happen only a few times a year, said Fowler, now the airline's executive vice president of technical operations.

Though Alaska declined to provide a list of known events, Andrea Schneider, staff vice president of station and in-flight operations, described the health risks this way: "You can choke, your throat gets itchy, your eyes water, it's not a very pleasant thing. And you may have it for a day or two where you don't feel all that great. But there are no long-term effects from that."

Medical experts question Schneider's authority to make such a claim. They say the research that could support or debunk her assertion simply has not been done.

Christiaan van Netten, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of Healthcare and Epidemiology, demonstrated last year that an oil-seal leak inside the engine of an Australian BAe-146 jetliner led to carbon monoxide being pumped into the cabin.

Similar independent research should now be conducted on the MD-80, he and other experts say.

"We don't know very much about aircraft air quality," van Netten said. "Nobody is willing to do the testing under the right conditions. You need to have fluid leaking into the system and then identify the agents released into the air. Then you can fix it."


Not that there haven't been tests of Alaska's MD-80s. The airline has commissioned several.

But the union questions their validity - and for apparent good reason.

On April 17, 1998, for instance, Alaska flew jet No. 948, an MD-80 with a history of hydraulic fluid leaks, to Spokane International Airport. Technicians from the Seattle-based chemical engineering firm Schumacher and Associates switched on the APU and left it running for several hours, taking periodic air samples from inside the cabin. Lab tests showed nothing hazardous in the cabin air.

But Knowles, the union attorney, subsequently obtained maintenance records showing mechanics had discovered a hydraulic fluid leak on No. 948 on April 16 - the day before the test. The leak was repaired, the APU cleaned and aircraft belly washed off before dispatching the jet to Spokane for testing.

"I've never seen a company do the kind of outrageous things this company has done," Knowles said. "They took an aircraft, cleaned it up and tested it as if it were a daily aircraft."

Fowler, Alaska's executive vice president of technical operations, denied taking any special measures with No. 948. "In preparation for the test, the only thing we did was fly the airplane to Spokane," he said.

But later in the same interview, Fowler altered his answer: "I guess I should qualify what I said. We did nothing that would alter the test."

Even as it continues to deny any responsibility for illnesses, Alaska has instructed its pilots not to use the APU until assuring hydraulic fluids are at proper levels. It has also begun evaluating a new, less-toxic lube oil to use as a replacement for Mobil 254.

Fowler said the oil switch is being looked into for technical reasons completely unrelated to sick crew members.


When the bickering over the Spokane test broke out, Terri Nixon was deeply immersed in a special assignment that gave her an intimate look at hundreds of illnesses reported by both crew members and passengers of Alaska Airlines.

Nixon hadn't worked as a flight attendant since she became ill in 1996. In August 1997, the union helped place her in a clerical job at Alaska, organizing several crates of internal records dating to 1989.

Nixon was instructed to create a database of "unexplained illness" reports - single-page computer files containing basic information for each illness reported by an individual after an Alaska flight.

She worked methodically. By May 1998, the database contained more than 1,600 separate files, mostly from flight attendants. But there were also scores of reports of sick passengers and some of sick pilots, Nixon said.

(Citing privacy concerns, Alaska declined to permit The Times to review the database; the Times has obtained printouts of several dozen database files.)

With the union raising a fuss over the Spokane tests, the database took on heightened significance. One day, a supervisor asked Nixon to sign a written agreement not to disclose anything from it, an agreement Nixon says the supervisor called a "gag order." In return, the company would continue her assignment.

Nixon was torn. She did not relish giving up her long career with Alaska. But she felt the company was asking her to neglect her colleagues as the price for keeping her job.

The voices of her co-workers resonated from the database:

"Having trouble remembering which passengers asked for which items . . . tired even after sufficient rest . . . burning eyes, nose, air passages and lungs with a lingering after taste . . . continued to feel ill for rest of flight and several days afterwards."

Even more bothersome were entries referring to passengers' problems:

"Many passengers were out cold and wouldn't respond . . . woman vomited on ramp, also indicated a weakness in her legs, further stating she never experienced illness from flying . . . two passengers fainted . . . woman vomited after gaining consciousness."

Nixon recalled how difficult it had been some days to type in file after file.

"I'd be sitting there with tears on my face, realizing, `Oh my God, it's the same thing I went through,' " she said. "First it was only the flight attendants. And then I started with the passenger reports. How do you explain passengers losing consciousness?

"Then I remembered the little boy in my air-quality incident. I couldn't bring him the oxygen he needed because I was so sick myself.

"I just couldn't sign the gag order."

Two weeks after refusing to sign it, Nixon was told her services were no longer needed. She now works as a waitress in a casino.


Alaska denies any malevolence toward Nixon or any of the flight attendants.

"I've known these flight attendants a long time," said White, the customer-service vice president. "They're good friends of mine. Their sons play baseball with my sons. I would not put those people into harm's way. That is repulsive to me."

White dismisses Knowles' contention that fluid leaks are causing illnesses as "crap."

White's attitude only seems to have invigorated Knowles. To refute the company's reasonable point that mystery illnesses seem oddly restricted to one airline, Knowles has begun culling records elsewhere and has begun to compile evidence of illness tied to leaking fluids at other carriers.

And while the problem appears to be worst on MD-80s because of their design, Knowles asserts it has occurred also on Boeing 727s, 737s, 747s and 767s; Airbus A320s; McDonnell Douglas DC-9s and DC-10s; and British Aerospace BAe 146s.

A letter from union leaders Tom Lent and Joni Benson to the rank-and-file sets forth the union's position unequivocally: "The company has had full knowledge of the problem since 1995 and has not provided this information to the union or Flight Attendants in what AFA feels is nothing short of a cover-up.

"We realize that you probably feel betrayed by this and rightfully so. It is more than unfortunate, it is insincere, unethical and horribly wrong."

The antagonistic attitude displayed by both sides bodes ill for getting to the bottom of the mystery, says Dr. Scott Barnhart, director of occupational and environmental health at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

More than a year ago, Barnhart recommended that the union and company call a truce and focus on doing an objective epidemiological study, one designed to explore all possible causes for the mysterious maladies.

"I'm not saying I think there's a clear, defined problem here," Barnhart said. "I'm saying we have a cluster of patients, a wealth of hypotheses, and an exceptionally adversarial environment. With all of that, we don't have enough data or the right data.

"I'm saying this bears further investigation. But it has to be done with a very clear emphasis on building trust. Without trust . . . the stalemate will continue."

Byron Acohido's phone message number is 206-464-2352. His e-mail address is: