Biohazard on board! What to do when disgusting things happen on planes


For Ryan Karas and Lindsi Stinson, it was blood. For Angela Rauen, it was urine. And for Linda Cannon, vomit.

All four of the airline passengers say they were confronted by a biohazard when they boarded recent flights. Their experiences, though not unusual, are happening against the backdrop of the Ebola epidemic, which is heightening passenger fears of infection.

The responses of airlines and government regulators suggest they have good reason to be concerned. Karas and Stinson, newlyweds flying from Phoenix to Kauai on US Airways, were taken aback when they spotted dried blood on their seatbacks. And they know what dried blood looks like: Both have jobs in emergency medicine.

“When we notified the flight attendant, she just said, ‘Oh, disgusting, someone should have reported that,’ and then walked away,” says Karas, who works for a hospital in Colorado Springs. “She didn’t apologize, or clean the mess, or even offer for us to sit in an alternate row.”

US Airways e-mailed the couple a form apology, and after I asked about their case, it followed up with an e-mail promising an “internal” investigation.

Rauen, who was on a morning flight from Orlando to Chicago on American Airlines, found herself sitting in a urine-soaked seat. “I knew it was human urine because of the very distinctive odor,” says Rauen, a sales manager from Oak Brook, Ill. She complained to a crewmember, who confessed that seats get sprayed by passengers “all the time” and told her she could either sit down or take the next flight. She sat down, and eventually, an attendant reseated her.

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Cannon, a teacher from Palatine, Ill., was on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Las Vegas when she felt something wet on her seat. “I pulled out my hand, which was covered in vomit,” she recalls.

This time, a flight attendant seemed more sympathetic to her complaint. The crewmember cleaned the seat while Cannon changed into some clean clothes. But it didn’t help: Bits of upchuck still coated her seat.

“I sat for 3½ hours with the remnants of vomit on my jeans and underwear,” says Cannon. ” I spent the entire flight with nausea and the woman in the next seat telling me it still smelled.”

Complaints to United were met with form letters dismissing her request as nothing more than a grievance about an “unpleasant odor,” for which the airline does not offer any compensation.

The passengers who came into contact with blood, urine and vomit wonder who to blame for the lack of hygiene on a plane, and what they’re doing about it.

The answer is a bit complicated. Of course, airlines are responsible for the cleanliness of their aircraft, and it’s a job they say they take seriously. At American Airlines, for example, planes are tidied up between flights, which can include cleaning the lavatories, seats and replacing any obviously soiled blankets or pillows. Overnight, the planes are serviced more thoroughly. The restrooms are serviced, seats and tray tables are wiped down, carpets are vacuumed and blankets and pillows are replaced.


Every month, each aircraft is given a “deep” cleaning, where seat covers are washed and the entire cabin is sanitized using government-approved cleaning agents. Every 18 months to two years, depending on the plane’s flight hours, the aircraft gets what’s called a “C Check,” during which the plane is basically taken apart piece by piece and put back together.

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“In that process, the cabin is obviously completely cleaned,” says American spokesman Joshua Freed.

Fortunately, the risk of infection to passengers is fairly low even when the system fails, experts say. “Exposure to bodily fluids of another passenger while traveling is generally rare,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and School of Medicine.

Health experts say you can’t contract an infectious disease such as Ebola via urine on a seat or dried blood. You may be at risk if an infected person vomits on you, but not usually in the case of contact with residual vomit, such as that faced by Cannon.

As for Ebola, there have been no cases of passengers contracting it on a plane in the United States, says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade organization. “The possibility of transmission is extremely low,” she adds.

Airline ticket contracts don’t provide any compensation for soiled seats, and it’s not even clear whom to complain to, beyond calling the carrier. Multiple agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have jurisdiction over various aspects of on-board sanitation for passengers and cabin crews. That makes tracking the number of complaints something of a challenge.

Bottom line? These gross-outs, while they may not harm passengers, shouldn’t be happening — particularly now. Air travelers aren’t entitled to adequate legroom or service with a smile when they fly anymore, but can we all agree that they deserve a sanitary seat?

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What to do if your seat is soiled

Ask to be moved. Chances are, there’s not enough time to bring in a cleaning crew to fix the problem before your flight departs. Politely ask a flight attendant if you can move to a clean seat.

Keep your expectations reasonable. You should expect an apology, but airline contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between you and the airline — don’t say you should get a free flight or an upgrade, no matter how unpleasant your experience.

If the airline ignores you, call the FAA. Contact the government if your airline doesn’t respond. You can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • PsyGuy

    I couldn’t vote the idea of picking one as the worst made me feel that I would to some degree be agreeing to accept the other two. I would however suggest adding feces, I’ve seen baby poop and adult poop on airplane seats and in the aisle.

    I can see both sides of this on the passenger side, give me a break, do I really need to call my airline and request a “non-soiled” assignment and if so what’s the fee for that. What’s next before departure they just blow trash into the cabin and call it cargo? Instead of snack packs or food they just come around with a trash can from the airport McDonalds, and you can help yourself to whats in the can?

    From the airlines perspective, and the FAs perspective, what are they supposed to do, they turned around a plane, and with flights at full capacity someone missed something, or they didn’t have the proper gear and equipment to clean up a bio hazard (OSHA requires specific procedures). From the airlines perspective why even bother trying to make good with the passenger, they screwed up so bad nothing short of 1 or 2 first class tickets is going to make any passenger feel better or feel justly compensated, and at the price of those you’re just better off losing the customer. They will either fly with you because they have too, in which case anything you give them is just a lost expense, and if they ever have a choice they are always going to fly someone else.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    From the airlines perspective why even bother trying to make good with
    the passenger, they screwed up so bad nothing short of 1 or 2 first
    class tickets is going to make any passenger feel better or feel justly
    compensated, and at the price of those you’re just better off losing the
    customer. They will either fly with you because they have too, in
    which case anything you give them is just a lost expense, and if they
    ever have a choice they are always going to fly someone else.

    I must once again respectfully but vehemently disagree just as I did recently. Many customers, myself included, understand that “stuff” happens. The issue is of course, service recovery. If the business remediates the problem to my satisfaction, showing me that it was merely an error and the business takes the issue seriously, I am generally happy to continue using the business goods and service because despite by best efforts, I have not achieved perfection.

    If however, the vendor shows an indifference to the situation, the business relationship is over. Trust is broken, quite likely forever.

    Additionally, there is of course the old business adage that a satisfied customer will tell 2-3 people about his experience with your company. A dissatisfied consumer will share their lament with 8-10 people and some will push that number to twenty.

    And more importantly…

    An unhappy customer will become a loyal consumer if you fix his complaint and do it quickly. Eighty percent (80%) of these folks will come back to you if you’ve treated them fairly. That percentage rises to the upper 90s if you respond immediately.

  • AJPeabody

    Time for a little logic.

    One: Stuff happens (insert a stronger word if you wish). Before or during flight, for that matter.

    Two: Not everything can be found and cleaned up in time to meet a tight schedule or in flight.

    Three: Full planes may not have a clean seat for an affected passenger.

    Conclude: Find a way to mitigate said stuff so a person can safely use a dirty seat.

    Answer: Every plane should carry impermeable total coverage seat covers that can rapidly be deployed by staff.. Modern material science can easily provide light fitted seat covers at least as good as my in-laws used to protect the love seat in their living room. As inelegant as a hazmat suit perhaps, but sanitary.

    Polyurethane anyone?

  • Diane Sweeney

    Remember…very seldom does an airline ever show up in Small Claims Court, particuarly if one is in Canada and the flight departed from Canada aboard a foreign carrier. So, you would get a judgment of some sort, but then your next problem would be in executing it and actually getting your compensation.

  • naoma

    I could not believe the woman SAT ON THE SEAT. (her comment) Didn’t she look and
    see a soiled seat?????? This seems far-fetched.

  • naoma

    Didn’t any LOOK before they SAT DOWN: Rauen, who was on a morning flight from Orlando to Chicago on American Airlines, found herself sitting in a urine-soaked seat. “I knew it was human urine because of the very distinctive odor,” says Rauen, a sales manager from Oak Brook, Ill. She complained to a crewmember, who confessed that seats get sprayed by passengers “all the time” and told her she could either sit down or take the next flight. She sat down, and eventually, an attendant reseated her.

    Cannon, a teacher from Palatine, Ill., was on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Las Vegas when she felt something wet on her seat. “I pulled out my hand, which was covered in vomit,” she recalls.

  • naoma

    Recently I sat next to an obese person. I am 98 pounds and 5’2″. She TRIED to move the arm rest up to fit in her BULK but I pushed it back down. I was not about to have her spill over on me. That happened at a theater once – — woman was so close to me she
    squished my upper leg. I barely got my leg loose and she started complaining about ME.
    I had a bruise when I got out of the show!!!

  • Alan Gore

    In this situation, the airline absolutely and without question owes the passenger a different seat, whether it’s in a different class or in what normally would be a crew rest area. If the flight is absolutely full, why doesn’t every aircraft have a full-length rubber sheet available to apply over the mess? It would cost nothing to have one of these be a part of the emergency equipment on each flight.

    The passenger has no way of knowing what was happening to the previous passenger. Did that blood carry HIV or Ebola?

  • The Original Joe S

    blood, urine and vomit – Didn’t Churchill say that during the Battle of Britain?

    It figures that Untied sends out a “bug” letter. Another reason to avoid flying with them. They have absolutely no respect for their patrons. They could at least have offered SOMETHING to the customer. Instead, they simply blow the customer off. Typical. I try to fly on airlines where they consider you a reason for their existence, not a pain.

    “If the airline ignores you, call the FAA.” Incorrect. If the airline ignores you, WRITE the FAA AND TO EVERY CONSUMER BLOG YOU CAN FIND. MAKE A MOVIE OF THE MESS AND PUT IT ON YOUTUBE. Let the FA threaten you with expulsion from the a/c, and / or arrest. Call their bluff. Go to court and show the judge AND JURY the puke on the seat. Get a competent, vicious lawyer named Genghis or Attilla.

  • The Original Joe S

    Yup. Had a bad experience in a pasta chain so long ago I can’t even remember the name of it right now even after a coffee. It so dampened our outlook that the restaurant is NEVER on our radar scope, even though we pass by it often. We don’t notice it. Won’t go back because of one inconsiderate waiter’s treatment of us; we simply don’t consider that place as a choice for dinner.

  • tio2girl

    It happened to me at a carnival. Grossest thing ever. I might have thought the same as you, but the fact of the matter is that we do it all the time – sit with the assumption that the seat is in good sitting condition with nothing more than the barest cursory glance if that. I think this is especially true on an airplane when travelers are already tired and being hustled to their seats. You sit, and surprise!

  • MarkKelling

    United has been good about swapping out seat cushions on planes where the seat was discovered to be soiled before takeoff. They are pretty fast about it too. Once we were delayed about an hour because an entire row of coach seats had to be replaced and the surrounding area sanitized.

    However, my question to the airlines still is: what are your so-called cleaning crews doing if these things are not discovered until the next plane load of passengers board? Even after boarding is delayed because the cleaning crews are still cleaning, passengers find all kinds of trash in, on, and around their seats. If the cleaning crews were cleaning, the mess noted in the article would never be left in the seats.

  • bodega3

    All I have seen in cleaning crews is the picking up of trash….mostly paper items. I haven’t seen them with cleaning liquid and rags in hand. We are usually last to deplane with the kids, so we meet up with the cleaning crew on just about every flight we are on.

  • Miami510

    The reason we’re all writing about this is these very unpleasant episodes are normal occurrences in life and usually not under the control of the perpetrator. I believe it
    is incumbent upon the airlines to either replace the seat cushion or, as previously
    suggested, have an impermeable rubber sheet material to protect the clothes of
    the next passenger.

    If these are not done, I view that as negligence… and if this was the first flight in the day it surely is negligence. Maybe the jump seat of the cabin crew should be made available. Those seats are not as comfortable, but I personally would prefer that to sitting in a puddle of
    vomit.

    Comment on the vote:

    All three are disgusting to contemplate, but I believe vomit received the most votes because of the odor.

  • JenniferFinger

    Any of them together with feces.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I had a dude try that with me. I said, “I paid for an entire seat, not half of one.” He got upset, but I didn’t care.

    If you’re that fat…buy two seats.

    (Bring the flames. I’m fireproof)

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! And wasn’t there a musical group by that name in the ’60’s? I loved those guys.

  • Vec14

    All three are disgusting, but as a biologist I’d be most concerned about blood since some viruses can remain viable for hours or days. As gross as it sounds, urine is generally sterile and the pH of the stomach is low enough to kill most microbes (why it hurts throwing up – and that’s the science lesson for today). Still, I wouldn’t want to sit in any of the above. I imagine the leather or leather-like seats may be easier to clean since they wouldn’t absorb fluids as quickly.

    I was on one flight they were able to replace a seat when the occupying pax realized someone had spilled coffee – I am surprised that an airline wouldn’t have a couple extra seat bottoms handy if a passenger noticed something was amiss.

    Lastly, maybe airlines should take a page from supermarkets and have a packet of sanitizers handy for pax to grab as they board – then they can wipe down everything at their seat.

  • The Original Joe S

    YES! Those were they! How prescient of you to note!

  • gracekelley

    You should have the expectation of the seat you were given and paid for would be acceptable to sit down on so I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to sit down without examination of the seat other than a cursory glance. Usairways is the worst about cleaning aircrafts especially between flights. No cleaning crew comes unless they are called and the crew grabs the trash “cleaning” between flights. If you find vomit or something like that they have to radio for a hazard team to come and even then I wouldn’t call it sanitation. A quick wipe down. It really is gross. They supposedly clean them at night after the last flight but I suspect it’s a cleaning that should be done between flights at best. They are taken out of service and given a deep cleaning probably just as much as is required.

  • Welcome back, Grant.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Thanks! A week without the internet was like a month without sunshine. :-)

  • polexia_rogue

    the ability to move seats is a rarity. the last 5 flights i have been on were 110% full.

    so if it was very wet i would see if it woucl be cleaned. BUT if the flight was about to leave and the FA said “sit down or you will get kicked off!” i would ask for a trash bag to sit on.

  • shannonfla

    We were on the scenic amtrak ride though the rockies recently and someone had puked on floor of gallery car, where everyone gathers to look out both sides. Car attendants were notified and it took HOURS to get it cleaned up. I got so sick from the smell from the other end of the gallery car that I had to go back to my roomette which only had Windows on one side. Not a bad view but not what we signed up for.

  • Travelnut

    Me too! The opinions of strangers on the Internet don’t bother me at all. So here goes. These comments are off topic, unless you are equating sitting next to an overweight person to be the same level of disgusting as having to sit in urine or vomit. Sadly, I think this exactly what you all mean. I will agree with you on the point that if you can’t fit in an economy seat, you shouldn’t purchase one. What saddens me is the level of revulsion expressed. The last flight I was on, my seat was next to an obese person. I walked way up the aisle to ask the FA quietly if I could be moved. It was a full flight and I couldn’t move, so yes it was uncomfortable. But not disgusting! Given the choice between that, and pee or vomit? Not even close to being the same. And these are real people with feelings.

  • kittymocha

    On a flight some years ago this happened to me on UAL. The flight attendant asked me to keep the arm up and I said no. I told her I paid for the seat and wasn’t going to share it! They just had her hanging over into the aisle! They need to make sure those that aren’t able to fit in a seat to buy 2 and if that’s not available, they need to make them fly another time where 2 seats are available together. It’s just not enforced when someone should be buying 2 seats.

  • Raven_Altosk

    If someone with enough flubber to fill their space and my space sits next to me and then takes that space from me, I reserve the right to judge them.

    If their feelings were hurt, they can buy another seat or drop a few pounds.

    Also, in that situation, you should complain to the airline. I have and received some airline funny money for it. If I pay for a seat, I expect to be able to sit in it.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Disgusting. Not the overweight people, the comments here.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I live near a major airport and always have my eye open for positions that my wife could fill. She’d really like to work there.

    But it’s tough. Most of the service level work is hard labor and the pay is low even considering the high cost of living for the area. I objected a while ago when someone said “Friendly customer service is free and doesn’t cost anything”. What a dismissive view of the value of labor. Having known people in the airline industry at several levels, what I know would keep some of you awake at night. Don’t ever bring a UV light and shine it on the seats, pillows, or hotel comforters. :-)

    The cleaning crews are low paid and often undocumented workers. Literally, nobody knows where some of these people are from and their security checks are minimal. With their low pay and limited English skills, their cleaning job on the plane is average at best. The same goes with the folks who handle your bag. Location means a lot. JFK baggage handlers are getting busted all the time for stealing from bags and that’s when they are caught.

    FA’s work a lot harder than they used to and for less pay. It seems strange because in the old days, they did more but it was on the service end. Now, as sky wardens, a lot of the work and stress comes from checklists and dealing with agitated passengers in economy.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    That’s why it’s important to remind the airline that you’re a frequent customer, looking to make things right, and want a gesture of goodwill rather than have their admit liability.

    But sure, when someone starts out saying: “I’m never flying this airline again!”, they are just asking to get a no.

  • PsyGuy

    What if they aren’t a frequent customer? What if they are a one time a year we fly on vacation customer, is it okay NOT to make a blood/urine/vomit/feces covered seat “right” in that case, because they don’t provide enough revenue to make it worth while?

    It doesn’t work that way, even if they gave me the two free first class tickets anywhere in the world, or they did give me a sincere apology, and moved my seat or made it right, they are still the airline that I almost sat in the blood/urine/vomit covered seat, that no one had cleaned. Forever more in the future there will be the voice in my head saying “remember that blood/urine/vomit/feces covered seat I almost sat in because someone didn’t clean it up” so do I want to pay an extra $2.00 fare difference between “Gore Airlines” or their competitor. The only time I’m ever going to buy from that airline in the future is when I have no choice.

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