Pilots and cabin crew are routinely being exposed to “toxic” air, the Unite union has claimed.
The union has launched legal action against five UK airlines, and urged them to clean up their act.
It has called for an inquiry into what it describes as “toxic cabin air”, with air contaminated by engine fumes containing toxic organophosphates and TCP used to pressurise airline cabins.
Citing “expert evidence”, the union says long-term exposure to this cabin air or other “fume events” can cause irreversible neurological damage and chronic illness.
Unite wants the airline industry to use safer oils to lubricate jet engines and fit aircraft cabins with filters.
The five airlines concerned in the 51 court cases served are easyJet, British Airways, Thomas Cook Airlines, Jet2.com and Virgin Atlantic.
Howard Beckett, Unite assistant general secretary legal services, said: “Independent expert evidence concludes air onboard jet planes can contain a toxic mix of chemicals and compounds that potentially damage the nervous system and may lead to chronic, irreversible health problems in susceptible individuals.
“The airline industry cannot continue to hide from the issue of toxic cabin air while placing the health and safety of aircrew at risk.”
TTG has approached the five airlines concerned for comment.
A British Airways spokesperson said: “We would never operate an aircraft if we believed it posed a health or safety risk to our customers or crew. None of the substantial research conducted over many years into cabin air quality has shown that exposure to cabin air causes long-term ill health.
"In recent research commissioned by the regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency, their thorough investigations concluded that the air quality onboard aircraft was similar or better than that observed in normal indoor environments.”
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “The health, safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is always our priority. As with all British airlines we operate to the strict regulations and standards set out by the UK CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency."
An easyJet spokeperson said: “EasyJet operates one of the world’s most modern fleets and our aircraft are fully compliant with the latest standards in terms of air quality and air-conditioning.
“EasyJet takes any health concerns raised by its crew seriously, however, aviation regulators and manufacturers around the world have looked at this issue and found no proof that long-term health issues arise from cabin air quality.
“On occasion so-called fume events can occur. Research has shown that in some instances this can cause some minor acute symptoms, but no link with long-term health effects has been proved.”
They added of the 51 cases, only four related to easyJet.
Thomas Cook Airlines declined to comment.