Recently, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) has been much discussed in the media. It has been dubbed economy-class disease, and there has been as much hype surrounding it as genuine medical debate. Some of the facts – medical and travel – have been obscured as a result.
Not surprisingly, the airlines are unhappy with the term economy-class disease. However, Dr Richard Dawood, a specialist in travel medicine at the Fleet Street Travel Clinic takes a cynical view of this. “Airlines do not like the economy-class name because it implies there is a link between DVT and flying – and there is,” he says.
Lack of mobility is at the root of the problem, so someone sitting in a car or train also risks suffering a thrombosis (see box, right). Passengers in business and first class are likewise at risk, but confined space remains an issue. “I am not opposed to the name economy-class syndrome. It is quite good in many ways,” says Dawood.
At the airlines, spokespeople for Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and American Airlines were all emphatic that economy class syndrome is “a misnomer” and moved the direction of the conversation towards immobility.
Virgin Atlantic and BA both show videos of exercises passengers can do in their seat, without laying waste their neighbour. And, surprisingly, both carriers also encourage passengers to move around the cabin, although clearly an en masse move to the aisles is undesirable. “We expect people to use their common sense,” says BA’s Leo Seaton.
However, in case Richard Dawood is right – and the airlines are hardly going to leap to agree with him anyway – it may be useful to know that BA and Virgin are typical, with seat pitch in long-haul economy class at 31 inches and 32 inches respectively; and 38in in premium economy.
American Airlines is in the process of removing more than 7,000 seats across its fleet, to increase leg room in economy to 34in-35in, although not in response to DVT scares.
Neither companies nor airlines are anticipating a mad rush to business class, nor mass aerobics in the cabin. Yet some have altered their policy.
Pharmaceuticals group Nycomed Amersham has a travel policy allowing business-class travel for journeys lasting six hours or more, although according to purchasing director David Cook, there are some travellers who claim to need the flexibility of a business-class ticket and therefore fly in the executive cabin to Europe.
Nycomed’s travel is split evenly between the US, UK and Scandinavia.
“With the airline deals we have to Scandinavia, our discounted business fares on those routes are cheaper than economy,” says Cook. “But BA’s introduction of World Traveller Plus will have an impact on long-haul flights. I flew in World Traveller Plus to Newark and thought it was very good for the price differential. A number of people may be may be downgraded from business class into premium economy, or upgraded from economy.”
Ian Hall, director of European travel sourcing for Unilever, says more research is required before any rise in travel budgets is passed to enable air travel upgrades. “It has been identified that it does not matter which cabin you sit in because the problem is lack of activity and movement,” he says. “We would stress that it is important to isolate the health issues for people travelling because employers have a duty of care to employees.
We have to minimise the risk to them.” Nevertheless, Unilever has made no official communication with its employees because it feels more work is needed to understand the problem and sort the facts from the hype.
Contacts: Fleet Street Clinic (020) 7353 5678, www.fleetstreet clinic.com; Royal Free Travel Health Centre (020) 7830 2885.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the formation of a thrombus (blood clot) within a vein, commonly in the thigh or calf, where blood pools during inactivity. The blood clot can block the flow of blood in the vein, and can also break off and travel to the brain or heart, possibly causing a stroke or heart attack.
DVT has been linked to air travel, especially long-haul flights in economy class. In October 2000, 28-year-old Emma Christofferson died after collapsing at Heathrow at the conclusion of a 12,000-mile flight from Sydney, Australia.
Shortly afterwards, British Airways became one of the first airlines to warn its passengers about the potential dangers of DVT.
To minimise risks, BA advises travellers to drink adequate fluids when in flight, avoid smoking and alcohol, keep legs uncrossed when seated and walk around the cabin whenever possible.
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