Four elementary school teachers have filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines citing negligence after suffering skin irritation and nausea from dumped fuel at their school near Los Angeles. The fuel was dumped at an unusually low level when Delta flight 89 was forced to return to L.A. International Airport after reporting engine trouble last Tuesday.

The 20 year old Boeing 777 aircraft had taken off on a routine flight from L.A. to Shanghai with 140 passengers on board when the pilot asked for permission to return after reporting the engine problem which is believed to have been a compressor stall. A compressor stall can cause an engine to fail.

The plane released fuel as a precautionary measure before making an emergency landing back at L.A. but did so at an altitude of around 2,300 feet and above Cudahy City, which is on the outskirts of L.A. and under a direct flight path to the airport.

The fuel fell to the ground as students and their teachers were outside their buildings. The teachers thought at first it was drizzling but soon realized that it was jet fuel as they experienced the effects of the fuel on their skin, eyes and face. About 60 people at six schools were affected by the fuel drop.

Jettisoning aircraft fuel is a standard procedure when an emergency landing is planned, but in fact pilots rarely resort to doing it. The fuel is dumped to lessen the weight of the plane before landing. However, dumping fuel over populated areas at such a low altitude is normally avoided. Pilots will normally communicate any need to dump fuel with air traffic controllers before doing so and if needed will be directed to an area where the fuel cannot land on people and at such a height, normally above 10,000 feet that it is atomized and dispersed before it reaches the ground. The release of fuel isn’t always necessary except when there is a problem with non-functioning landing gear which wasn’t the case in this incident.

Pilots didn’t request a fuel dump, then seem to have dumped it anyway

In the case of Delta flight 89, a recorded communication between air traffic controllers and the pilots has been released and appears to suggest that the pilots had indicated that they did not need to dump any fuel. One of the pilots was heard to reply “Negative” when asked if a fuel dump was needed. The contradiction between what the pilots were heard saying and the decision to dump the fuel without permission and advice from air traffic controllers may prove to be vital evidence in the lawsuit filed by Cudahy’s Park Avenue 4 elementary school teachers.

The flight to Shanghai would have been expected to have had sufficient fuel to last at least 10 hours, but it is not known at this stage exactly how much fuel was actually released.

The FAA has launched an investigation into the fuel dump, but this will take several weeks to complete. Delta says that it responded to the release of the fuel by sending personnel to the schools that reported fuel falling on them to help clean up.

The effects of the fuel dump

Most of the people who were directly affected by the jettisoned fuel were elementary school pupils and their teachers who happened to be out in the school playground when the fuel was dropped over them. Two whole classes were in the playground just before noon on the14th Jan. Teachers said they tried to shield the children from the fuel as it fell on them and got them back into buildings as fast as they could. They said that the fuel got on to their skin and into their mouths and noses and caused them to feel dizzy, sick and nauseous.

70 firefighters attended the schools that were affected by the fuel dump. The firefighters and Delta personnel who also went to the school tried to clean the school facilities and decontaminate the students and their teachers.

Only half of the people affected by the fuel dump were at Park Avenue elementary. Four other elementary schools and one high school on the return flight path of the aircraft also experienced negative effects from the fuel.

Delta has so far not issued any statement in response to the lawsuit.