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Passengers on a 'nightmare' El Al flight to New York are suing the company after their plane took off with faulty air conditioning, which they claim endangered their health and forced the plane to turn back and make an emergency landing at Ben Gurion Airport.
Chizki Loonstein, who initiated the suit and will represent the other passengers in small claims court in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post that each passenger would be claiming between NIS 15,000 and NIS 20,000 from El Al in compensation for the cost of their tickets, the average price of a similar ticket with another carrier, and for any inconvenience costs incurred such as medical attention, telephone calls, etc.
The flight in question, LY001 to New York on October 14 (the night after Yom Kippur), a Boeing 747-400, was fully booked with around 400 passengers on board, meaning that El Al could face damages of up to NIS 5 million if all the passengers submit claims.
To date, Loonstein said, "several dozen have filed from the US and over 80 in Israel."
He added that five to 15 more are added each day. Knowledge of the suit, he said, is spreading by word of mouth.
In response, El Al said it has not yet received any summons about the case and that it would issue a response if and when it does.
Before filing the suit, Loonstein said he spoke to El Al CEO Haim Romano to find an out of court solution on behalf of all the claimants, which Romano declined, except to meet with Loonstein to discuss his individual experience. When Loonstein accepted the invitation, he said he did not receive any further communication from Romano.
The basis of the claim, according to Loonstein's suit, is that El Al boarded passengers and took off with full knowledge that the air conditioning was not working and should have foreseen the problem.
"Upon boarding, several passengers requested that the air conditioning be turned up," the claim reads.
The answer they received, according to the claim, was that the problem existed before Yom Kippur, but was taken care of over the fast.
"As soon as the plane reaches a height of 30,000 feet, when the outside temperature is minus 50 degrees Celsius, the inside temperature will drop as a result and it will be more pleasant," they were told by the services manager for the flight, before take off, the claim further stated.
El Al's vice president for safety, Lior Yavor, told thePost the company was confident it took all the necessary precautions to ensure passenger safety.
Yavor explained that a plane has three air conditioning units and by standard safety procedures is allowed to fly as long as at least two are working.
"The problem was that the one faulty system, which was deactivated, started to release unusually warm air after take-off, which we were unable to adjust," Yavor said. "We could either climb higher in the hope that the temperature would level off or turn back, which we did because the doubt existed."
It must be understood, he added, that the in-flight air conditioning is used to warm the cabin from the influences of the cold outside temperatures and not to cool the plane.
While the plane took off despite passenger protests, the claim said the cabin temperature reached between 35 and 40 degrees after about an hour in the air at which point the pilots decided to turn back to Tel Aviv to have the air conditioning attended to.
At this point, Loonstein added that many passengers were feeling ill and had shortness of breath from the heavy heat.
One traveler, who was early in her eighth month of pregnancy at the time and asked to remain anonymous, had contractions within 24 hours of arrival in New York and had to be hospitalized.
She told the Post that doctors found no other reason for the contractions except for the conditions on the flight.
On return to Tel Aviv, which was delayed due to the plane's requirement to dump over 30,000 liters of fuel before landing, passengers "panicked when the doors remained closed and they were unable to leave to get a breath of fresh air."
While a number of ambulances and fire engines were on standby on the runway for the plane's arrival, Loonstein said they disappeared once the plane had parked safely.
"Passengers who required medical attention had to search for it on their own at Ben Gurion Airport," he said. "The presence of emergency personnel led me to believe that the plane needed to make an emergency landing and that there was a danger we were not informed about.
A danger that Yavor denies existed.
"At no point was an emergency declared," he said. "The ambulances were there by the request of the pilot in case there was a need for medical assistance, which no-one took up. We are not aware that there was a need for medical care after the flight."
Yavor said an after flight enquiry by the company found that the crew acted sufficiently and in accordance with procedure. A second investigation is currently being conducted by Boeing Co., the maker of the aircraft, as to the technical aspects of the system failure.
Loonstein said the hearings were expected to start in two weeks time and continue through January.