Airlines are finally backing research into passengers' risk of dying from blood clots on long flights. But if they want to avoid costly lawsuits, they must also publicise preventive measures. Brent Escott reports….

Pressure from the medical profession, passengers and the insurance industry has caused airlines to take a positive stance on preventing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). At a meeting in Geneva on March 13, medical specialists and representatives of 16 airlines took the decision to institute a two-year worldwide research project into the risks of developing DVT on long-haul flights. This is the first time major international research has been conducted on the subject, which airlines have long denied is a serious threat to passengers.

The Aviation Health Institute has campaigned for years for airlines to take action on DVT. Its director Farrol Kahn proclaims the development as a significant breakthrough. “The decision signals the end of a period of denial among airlines of the link between DVT and flying,” he says.

DVT involves the formation of a blood clot, usually in the leg, which can be fatal if it moves to the heart or lungs and causes a pulmonary embolism. It requires prompt medical treatment and is made more likely by dehydration and lack of movement on long flights.

The Geneva summit was organised by the World Health Organisation and was the latest in a series of meetings in Europe and Australia on the subject. The airlines involved in the meeting included British Airways, Virgin, Air France, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.

Parameters for the research project are now being finalised by a team of medical and airline specialists, led by British vascular surgeon John Scurr, one of the world's leading authorities on DVT.

The condition is thought to kill between 300 and 3,000 British air travellers each year, but the exact figure is not yet known because this sort of research has never been undertaken before.

Last month, my own company, the travel insurer Club Direct, said that it would pay the legal costs of policyholders suing airlines for compensation if they were not warned of the risks of flight-related DVT. It also called for the travel industry to give travellers better information on reducing the likelihood of developing DVT.

While some airlines are beginning to take such action, more need to do so. We all know the risk is there, we know it is quite high, and in two years' time we will hopefully be able to quantify the level of risk more accurately. In the meantime, the best way to reduce deaths is to make sure passengers are adequately informed about how to keep to a minimum their chance of developing a clot.

Club Direct believes that airlines that do not take steps to help passengers reduce the risk may be leaving themselves open to legal action.

Suits are already being prepared against airlines. Watford legal firm Collins is acting on behalf of passengers and relatives of those who have died as a result of DVT after long flights. The firm says the new research is useful, but it will not alter the circumstances of passengers that have been affected by or died from DVT.

“The substance of what we are saying remains the same,” comments Gerda Goldinger at Collins. “The research is needed, but it does not affect the positions of people who have already contracted deep vein thrombosis. What we need to prove is that the airline knew about the risk of passengers getting DVT, but did nothing to advise them about ways of reducing it.”

Collins is at the preliminary stages of two cases. “We are in correspondence with solicitors at British Airways and Virgin,” says Goldinger, “but this is just the opening gambit. The cases have not started properly yet and their lawyers are not admitting any liability at present.”

Firm action is needed now to inform passengers about how to reduce the risk of developing DVT on flights. Club Direct would like to see a standard system of education initiated, which alerts people at two stages in the travelling process.

Some people in high-risk groups should consider postponing travel, which means that educational material needs to be available to them when, or before, they buy a ticket.

For others, a simple warning to exercise and drink water on the plane could make the difference between life and death.

  • Brent Escott is managing director of Club Direct.

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