The death of a 28-year-old woman in the arrival hall at Heathrow Airport in 2000 following a flight from Australia brought this phrase into the news.
It refers to a deep vein thrombosis, usually in the leg, caused by sitting immobile for long periods in a cramped aircraft seat. Once movement begins again the clot can move to heart or lungs, causing rapid death. Air operators are now being urged to give prominent advice about precautions travellers can follow to avoid the problem, which include taking an aspirin before boarding (to help stop blood clotting), exercising during the flight, and consuming plenty of soft drinks. The finger is also being pointed at poor cabin ventilation, which some doctors say is a contributory factor.
The airlines say the phrase is a misnomer as it isn’t a problem only with economy class passengers — not exactly reassuring for business travellers. However, Roderik Kraaijenhagen and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam said in the British medical journal Lancet in November 2000 that they could find no evidence for the syndrome; they argued that its risk has been greatly overestimated by previous studies.
Other life-threatening conditions such as deep vein thromboses and strokes have also been connected with what has become known as “economy class syndrome”.
Independent on Sunday, May 2000
This type of schedule has become so common that last year the British science journal The Lancet published a study pointing to a new medical condition, “economy-class syndrome” as a major contributor to heart disease and stroke deaths among business people.
International Herald Tribune, May 2000