Aircraft giant fails to block cabin fumes case

Tim Clarke and Grant Taylor

A Perth mother who claims she was poisoned by toxic fumes while working as a flight attendant on an Ansett flight in the late 1990s is set to take aeronautics giant BAe Systems to court in a bid for damages.

Melissa Dray is convinced she is one of thousands of worldwide victims of “aerotoxic syndrome”, which sufferers say is caused by the cabin being contaminated with microscopic airborne engine oils and other chemicals.

Since the event she says caused her symptoms in 1999, Mrs Dray has had fatigue, severe headaches, nausea, cognitive dysfunction and a hypersen-sitivity to chemicals including perfumes and exhaust fumes.

She says this means she avoids even filling her car with petrol, or shopping at stores such as Bunnings.

Mrs Dray can only work part-time in between caring for her children in her family’s northern suburbs home.

More than a decade ago, she began a civil court action against BAe Systems — the company that built the BAe 146 jet which flew under the Ansett banner and which Mrs Dray helped crew from 1996 to 1999.

Now, after two failed attempts by BAe to have the legal claim sidelined, a judge has told Mrs Dray she has an “arguable cause of action” which is set to become a landmark legal battle to rule on the reality of the controversial contamination.

“I felt paralysed and like I could not move,” Mrs Dray said.

“I was having trouble breathing and I had a severe pain in my chest, and when I went home to Perth, I could not remember my family members’ names.

“I had blisters in my nose ... and six weeks later my hair started to fall out. I was 23 years old and doing my dream job but I started to question my managers about what had happened on that plane.”

Researchers have argued about the existence of aerotoxic syndrome for almost two decades without conclusive proof.

A Senate investigation in 2000 heard evidence of successful workers compensation claims attributed to BAe 146 fumes but British research that year found no link to long-term problems.

But in a judgment this month in WA’s District Court, Registrar George Kingsley dismissed BAe’s argument that Mrs Dray needed to identify precisely the chemicals causing her ailments. He ruled the company had a case to answer at a possible trial.

Three years ago BAe argued unsuccessfully that Mrs Dray’s access to documents related to the case should be restricted because she had voiced support for other claimed sufferers.

Mrs Dray says she still feels flying is like “Russian roulette” and wants what happened to her acknowledged as real and life-changing.

“I want people to be made aware that it does happen, so when it happens again they can get the help they need,” she said.

The case will next be before the court in September.