London, Nov. 5: Air-India’s “cattle class”, where passengers are packed into overcrowded flights between London and India, could happily be a thing of the past if a group of angry protesters succeed in a landmark legal case they have brought against 28 of the world’s biggest carriers.
Lawyers acting on behalf of 56 passengers or their relatives are taking action in the high court in London against the airlines which stand accused of not warning travellers about the risk of “deep vein thrombosis” (DVT) on long haul flights.
Although a spokesman for Air-India said India’s national carrier was not among the airlines being sued — “we have not had a thrombosis case” — any court ruling would affect all airlines.
Among those bringing the claims is Timothy Stuart, of Llanmartin, Newport, south Wales, on behalf of his former fiancee, Emma Christoffersen. The 28-year-old died two years ago after developing a blood clot on a 20-hour flight from Australia to London.
The first task of the claimants is to ensure the court will allow the case to be brought against the airlines. They argue that DVT should be classed as an “accident” under the 70-year-old Warsaw Convention, which covers matters of compensation to passengers.
If the legal action succeeds, airlines may have to pay millions of pounds in compensation to victims or their families.
At least it could lead to more leg room being made available on aircraft, which every passenger would like to see.
Des Collins, a lawyer representing the claimants, said he believed the claims were just the tip of the iceberg. “Safety must always be the priority and there has been little evidence of this here,” he said.
The airlines have denied liability. They argue that they are protected by the Warsaw Convention from paying compensation for medical problems, classed as a passenger reaction to the normal operation of an aircraft. The airlines being sued include British Airways, KLM Royal Dutch and American Airlines.
Sarrol Khan, director of the Aviation Health Institute, said he doubted whether the claims would succeed because of the strict wording of the convention.
“In the States it might have stood a better chance but not in this country if you go on the history of what has happened in Warsaw cases,” he said. “They have always stuck to the letter of the law.”
The dangers of travelling for long distances in cramped seats have been known for several years and is nicknamed the “economy class syndrome” or, in the case of Air-India, “cattle class syndrome”.
Researchers from France studied millions of passengers flying into Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris between 1993 and 2000. They found that the longer the flight the greater was the risk for the passenger, although the risk of developing fatal clots was still relatively low.
Dr Frederic Lapostolle, from the Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny told the New England Journal of Medicine that people who flew over 3,100 miles, were 150 times more likely to get a serious blood clot than those who took shorter flights.
The rate increased to one in 376,000 for passengers travelling 4,500 miles to 6,215 miles and one in 210,000 for people flying over 6,215 miles.
Over the seven-year study, 56 people were found to develop the serious lung clots.
There are warnings that the problem could have been ever greater. Because the study only examined people who were affected within an hour of their plane landing, the risks could in fact be higher. People who suffered fatal clots while in flight and those who developed symptoms after leaving the airport were not included in the study.
Indian passengers remain a high-risk group because many do not take exercise anyway and clamber on board with large amounts of hand luggage, further restricting leg room.