It was supposed to be a quick trip to pick up her kid from summer camp.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, was buckled up and ready for takeoff from Chicago to Portland, Maine, with her husband, David. The plane was full and hot - too hot, perhaps, for the passenger sitting next to them. As they taxied down the runway, there was an unsuccessful scramble for a barf bag, followed by a clasping of the hands over the mouth, and then disaster.
“The vomit sprayed directly all over my husband . . . over everything . . . everywhere,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s misfortune did not make headlines. Neither did the stomach-turning recent experiences shared by a dozen travelers, such as coming across feces spread on lavatory walls to airplane seats covered with fresh chewing gum and puppy poop. There was the traveler stuck sitting next to a passenger in first class who soiled themselves on a flight from Minneapolis to D.C.
Then there are the incidents that do make the news, like the deeply unfortunate Delta flight that had to make a U-turn over the weekend due to a passenger suffering from “diarrhea all the way through the airplane.” Or the travelers who were removed from their Air Canada flight after refusing to sit in vomit-soaked seats on Aug. 26.
The rapid-fire dose of gross has us reeling with questions. Namely: what, dear god, is happening? And should we be worried? Are airlines capable of keeping planes clean? Are we doomed for disgusting flights?
The past, present and future of gross
Unlike the recent Delta flight, Nelson’s flight stayed the course. The sick passenger was asked to find a change of clothes in her carry-on bag while the rest of the cabin managed their secondhand queasiness. “Sympathy vomiting” can be a real issue, Nelson says. She recalls an all-nighter from San Francisco to Boston she took before the pandemic on which a passenger vomited 30 minutes before landing, causing a “chain reaction” among roughly 50 people and a “waterfall of puke going into the aisle,” she said.
Nelson tells the horrifying story to illuminate her point: The recent spate of bodily disasters on planes isn’t new. Gross stuff happens all the time on planes. Scott Keyes, founder of Going.com, brings up a famous example from 1975 when 197 people got food poisoning onboard a Japan Airlines flight from Alaska to Copenhagen that sent 144 people to the hospital.
Delta Air Lines spokesperson Morgan Durrant said in an email that “the vast majority of air travel is safe, uneventful and even, on Delta anyway, enjoyable.” In his 19 years in the aviation industry, the recent Atlanta flight was the first he’d heard of something of its kind happening.
But even though it’s not new or impacting the majority of flights, Nelson does believe we’re seeing more cases of gross. She credits the uptick to more people flying, as travel volume this summer exceeded 2019 levels.
Nelson also believes the pandemic kept more sick people at home, and that sick people may be more inclined to travel these days.
It doesn’t help that airlines have struggled with cleanliness with labor shortages and pandemic-cleaning procedures dropping. “Planes are not getting any kind of deep clean in the day unless there is a specific action to pull the plane out of service - and we frankly rarely see that.”
United, American, Southwest and Frontier did not respond to requests for details on their cleaning protocols. Allegiant Airlines said in a statement to The Washington Post that aircraft surfaces are cleaned on a daily basis, including seat belts, tray tables, galleys and lavatories.
What do airlines owe passengers?
Keyes says if you were to get a broken seat, airlines are required to move you, but if your seat is dirty, the rules aren’t as clear.
“I don’t know of any law or item in the airline’s contract of carriage that requires reseating due to disgusting-but-not-unsafe-per-se conditions,” Keyes said in an email. “In fact, social media is rife with pictures of planes that have been inadequately cleaned, including vomit residue and other unwelcome sights from a previous flight.”
While there may not be a legal requirement for airlines to move you, if there’s a seat available “airlines will almost always reseat you away from the soiled area,” Keyes said. “And if the mess is so widespread that it’s unavoidable for some passengers - and especially if it’s illness-inducing - then the pilot may consider it a safety issue and choose to divert.”
When the flight is full, as was the case with the vomit-covered seat on Air Canada, flight attendants may not have a place to move you. It’s airline discretion what happens next, Keyes says. Most airlines may put passengers on the next flight, but he’s not aware of a legal or contractual right to cleanliness the way there is with safety protections.
“In some ways this is an unfortunate side effect of airlines’ focus on on-time departures - cutting corners on cleaning,” he said.
After the flight, ask for some token of compensation in-person or via the airline’s customer service email. Keyes says what you’ll get is within the airline’s discretion, but more often than not you can expect some flight credit or frequent flier miles. Nelson recommends the same, and also adds that travelers can ask flight attendants to “alert the ground” of the situation so that by the time you land, staff will be there to assist you with the situation on-site.
Air Canada didn’t respond to questions from The Post on whether it refunded two passengers who were kicked off a flight after refusing to sit in soiled seats.
Should travelers be worried about their health?
In case of biohazards, flight attendants have protocols to follow from OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There should be biohazard gear on planes to deal with contamination to keep passengers and flight attendants safe.
Kari Debbink, an associate scientist and virologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said the risk of contracting a serious illness such as Ebola or HIV from a passenger’s bodily fluids is low. However, travelers exposed to infected particles could come down with norovirus, a gastrointestinal disease often associated with cruise ships.
Even if the airline thoroughly sanitizes the site of the incident, norovirus could still be a threat. The highly contagious disease can travel a distance and linger on surfaces for days, infecting unsuspecting passengers.
“If someone does a good job of cleaning up, it could still be on a surface around you. You could touch it, eat a sandwich and not even realize that you were in contact with it,” she said.
Debbink said if you become infected, you’ll experience symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain within 24 to 48 hours. The virus typically lasts for a day or two.
Household bleach will kill the virus; however, the Transportation Security Administration bans liquid bleach in checked and carry-on luggage. Debbink said passengers can wipe down surfaces with an alcohol-based sanitizer, but warns that pathogens are finicky. “They may work against some pathogens, but they may not work against all of them,” she said.
To protect yourself, she recommends wearing a mask and washing your hands and any objects that might have been exposed to the bodily fluids.
Overall, Debbink said passengers do not have to worry too much about falling ill from another passenger’s vomit, diarrhea or blood - unless they have a strong gag reflex.
“There’s really not that much of an actual disease transmission concern,” she said, “but it’s gross.”
Stacey Rose, associate professor of infectious diseases and internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said particles from profuse vomiting or diarrhea can spread far and wide.
“Particles tend to land places and then you end up touching those surfaces, getting contaminated, and then touching your own mouth or eyes or nose or mucous membranes.”
She said a passenger could pick up an infection from a simple act such as pulling out a stick of gum to unpop their ears.
Blood-borne diseases are less of a threat than germs transmitted the fecal-oral route. “A blood-borne pathogen would be unlikely to transmit if it was something where you sat down and saw blood on the seat or on the tray table. Usually blood-borne pathogens are not going to survive for long periods of time on a surface. So as long as someone is wiping it down with alcohol-based or bleach-based cleaning products, I don’t see that as posing a huge risk,” she said.
How travelers can protect themselves
For a better chance at getting a clean seat (or getting a flight that’s not full, so there are more seats open in case of emergency), Jen Moyse, VP of product for the travel app TripIt, recommends booking early-morning flights, “though even overnight cleaning may not be helpful for vomit,” she said in an email.
On the personal responsibility front, Rose reminds passengers to avoid flying if they are feeling unwell. The repercussions could ripple through the entire plane. These recent viral incidents are “a reminder that we have to be mindful of the potential for us to introduce potentially contagious microorganisms into our environment,” she said.
Nelson adds that travelers should avoid eating anything risky ahead of flying, to use the restroom before boarding and keep your shoes on throughout your trip, both because it’s gross for other passengers and you run the risk of picking up fungus, germs and bacteria that can cause infections or warts.
“Nobody wants to see or smell your feet on a plane,” she said. “But first and foremost, we’re concerned about your safety.”
Lastly, if you are feeling queasy on your travel day, locate a barf bag as soon as you take your seat. While they’re supposed to be in every seat-back pocket, sometimes they’re missing, or tucked away tighter than you want in an emergency. Don’t wait until it’s too late to find out.