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BA chief Willie Walsh insists 'cabin air is safe'

The chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways and Iberia, has told ITV News that he believes "cabin air is safe".

It is the first time that Willie Walsh has commented since a coroner in Dorset wrote to British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority, last week, raising safety concerns and calling for urgent action to "prevent future deaths".

BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh. Credit: ITV News

Mr Walsh was speaking as the airline group announced its annual results for 2014.

I flew as a pilot for 18 years, I still take around 150 flights a year. You can't draw conclusions (on safety) based on 1 or 2 individual events.

We would not operate an aircraft if we believed it represented a risk to our passengers or crew. We just wouldn't do it, It’s the nature of our business.

– Willie Walsh

Organophosphates are found in synthetic jet engine oil. In the case of aircraft engines they are added to help prevent parts from wearing out and over-heating.

In most modern aircraft, unfiltered air from jet engines is used to supply the cabin, engines have been designed this way since the 1950s. But in the event of an oil leak fumes can end up inside the aircraft.

On Wednesday ITV News spoke to the father of Mathew Bass who died suddenly last January aged 35.

Mathew had worked as cabin crew for two airlines in a 15 year career. A post mortem failed to establish why he died.

His family paid for a second post-mortem examination which was carried out by a pathologist in Holland. He concluded that Mathew had "chronic exposure to organophosphates".

The senior coroner in Dorset has been investigating the death of a British Airways pilot, Richard Westgate. Richard Westgate was on medical leave when he died in 2012. The 43-year-old believed he had been poisoned by repeated exposure to contaminated cabin air.

Former pilot Richard Westgate died whilst on medical leave in 2012. Credit: ITV News

Senor Coroner Sheriff Stanhope Payne's investigation isn't complete, the inquest has yet to be heard but he clearly has concerns about the evidence he has seen to-date.

Willie Walsh told me that British Airways does not monitor cabin air for the presence of organophosphates on a regular basis because he believes the equipment to do it "sufficiently accurately" doesn't exist. But he told me:

We do monitoring in terms of the performance of the aircraft and we are satisfied that the aircraft is safe.

– Willie Walsh

I asked him how many pilots and crew had been signed off on medical leave due to exposure to organophosphate. He said that the airline group didn't "have data to support that question".

Mr Walsh said that as far as he is aware no pilot has ever made a mistake during a flight because of exposure to oil fumes.

Willie Walsh said the scientific evidence to-date supports his view that cabin air is safe but that:

British Airways definitely takes this issue seriously and will respond in due course to what the coroner has asked.

– Willie Walsh

The government’s position is similar. It says that "normally" cabin air is less contaminated than air "in many work environments such as office buildings".

The Department of Transport notes pilots and cabin crew have complained of ill-health but says a review by the independent Committee on Toxicity in 2007 "did not establish a link between cabin air and pilot ill health, but nor did it rule it out".

IAG reported a full year operating profit of €1.39bn for 2014. The performance of the group’s Spanish airline, Iberia, was particularly striking.

Iberia looked not long for this world when it was merged with British Airways back in 2011. 4,500 jobs have been cut, pilots and crew have accepted significant pay cuts and the airline is now making money again.

The business is turning around, there’s still some work to do but is a remarkable turnaround.

– Willie Walsh

Willie Walsh says if the Irish government approves IAG’s bid for Aer Lingus there would be job losses but on nothing like the same scale.

Aer Lingus has actually done its restructuring.

– Willie Walsh

IAG has guaranteed that Aer Lingus’ slots at Heathrow will continue to be used to connect Irish airports to the London hub for a period of five years.

It’s also interesting that while the price of oil has slumped, IAG’s fuel bill has gone up. The business is growing but even so.

Walsh says much of the benefit has been lost because of the way currencies have moved. IAG buys oil in dollars and sells tickets in pounds and euros. The pound and the euro have weakened against the dollar.

Anyone hoping for a fall in the fuel surcharge which IAG applies to long haul flights, is likely to be disappointed.

Walsh argues that IAG’s profit margin (6.9%) is “too low”. Translation: there’s no room to cut prices. “We’ll keep it under review”, Walsh said.

Full report: