Toxic Fumes: German Airline Safety Issues Larger than Thought

Just how dangerous is flying in Germany? Airlines often fail to report safety issues and, according to a pilots' union spokesman, air quality incidents inside jet cabins are commonplace. Now Germany's transport minister has demanded that the European Union come up with a unified approach to the problem.

Lufthansa's low cost subsidary Germanwings has been having cabin air safety problems. Zoom
DPA

Lufthansa's low cost subsidary Germanwings has been having cabin air safety problems.

Questions about safety at German airlines are mounting. According to a memo from Germany's Federal Aviation Office, which SPIEGEL has seen, German airlines repeatedly violated requirements outlining the type of incidents that must be reported to aviation authorities. The memo, written in November 2010, says that "based on internal analysis, the office has come to the conclusion that responsible authorities were often not notified of problems that should have been reported by law."

The memo comes to light just as German aviation has been hit by revelations of two incidents in which poisonous engine oil vapors leaked into airline cabins. At the end of September, an interim investigation report revealed contaminated cabin air caused pilots of Lufthansa's budget subsidiary Germanwings to nearly lose consciousness as they were trying to land a plane with 149 passengers and crew on board at Cologne-Bonn airport.

The flight from Vienna had been uneventful, but the Germanwings' pilots said that as they began their descent they started to feel sick and dizzy and one reached for his oxygen mask. Though they were found to have significantly lowered blood oxygen levels, they managed to land the plane without any passenger injuries. That incident took place in December 2010, just a month after Germany's Aviation Office issued the memo regarding reporting requirements.

A similar incident took place at the beginning of September. Several passengers on a flight run by the French budget airline XL Airways became sick during a flight to Cologne. Again, the reason was determined to be engine oil vapors.

On Brussels ' Agenda

German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer believes that the issue should be tackled at the European level. "The issue belongs on the Brussels agenda," he told SPIEGEL.

Because the investigation into the Germanwings incident didn't begin until fully a year had passed, many have accused the airline of having played down the incident. Ramsauer, for his part, dismissed allegations that authorities had covered up problems with oil vapor leaking into cabins.

"The Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation has focused intensively for years on the issue of cabin air," said Ramsauer. "Nothing has been swept under the rug by the investigators."

Contaminated Air

The problem of contaminated air should have been dealt with years ago, said parliamentarian Markus Tressel, of the environmentally friendly Green Party. "The ministry should have been active for years," said Tressel. He cited an internal Federal Aviation Office memo from 2003 warning that oil deposits in engines could lead "to harmful contamination of cabin air" and "poisoning of the flight crew."

Jörg Handwerg, spokesman for the pilots' union Cockpit, said over the weekend that the problem is much bigger than previously thought. Speaking to the German newsmagazine Focus, he said that there are "up to 10 such incidents per week at German airlines." He said that the air supply systems in all planes should be fundamentally changed. But "because there have been no crashes so far, airline manufacturers haven't acted," Handwerg told Focus.

Germany's largest airline Lufthansa announced late last week that it will be developing an analyzer for measuring potential pollutants in airline cabins. In addition, it announced that engines will be modified to prevent oil leakage flows into cabin air. The airline said that until all machines are equipped with the modification, technicians should check for oil leaks and clean the parts by hand if necessary.

Lufthansa says that the measures had long been planned and that they are not a reaction to the incidents at its budget subsidiary. Meanwhile, on Thursday a Germanwings pilot delayed take off of a flight in Sardinia after he noticed an unusual smell in the passenger cabin. Passengers were forced to disembark and were ultimately flown to their destination, the Cologne/Bonn airport, by a different aircraft.

rr/SPIEGEL

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