Confessions of an infected airline passenger: “The most miserable six hours of my life”

surgicaWe’ve been hearing a lot lately about the dangers of flying with the flu, and the airlines’ refusal to loosen their rigid ticket change policies. But how does it looks from the passenger’s perspective?

Meet Amanda. She doesn’t want me to use her last name for reasons that will be obvious to you in a moment. She had the flu but decided to fly.

This is her story:

The night before my return flight, I began to feel sick, and by the morning of my flight I had the full blown flu, with coughing, fever, and chills.

I called Southwest to bump my flight by a day, and while the rep was kind, she couldn’t do anything but offer me the opportunity to pay the change in fare (about $300). Since this was not a possibility for me, I reluctantly dosed myself with cold medicine and endured the unending stares of everyone on the shuttle, in the security line and boarding around me on my flight and endured the most miserable six hours of my life flying.

Putting aside my own misery, I felt just horrible for everyone I came into contact with, given everyone’s concern for the flu this season. Granted, I doubt I have H1N1 and at least 30 percent of my flight was wearing a surgical mask, but I wish I could have done more.

Wait a second. Didn’t the Southwest flight attendants notice her illness and suggest she fly another day? (That’s what they’re supposed to do.) No, they didn’t.

I was very obviously sick throughout the flight, huddled in my seat shivering and sniffling, and upon exiting the flight, I specifically pulled aside a flight attendant to mention that perhaps they would like to spray down the tray, etc because I wouldn’t want anyone else to get sick.

They seemed unconcerned.

Did I skip a step I could have taken? Perhaps someone else could get the benefit, and to my fellow travelers, I apologize.

I think Amanda did everything she could, short of paying Southwest another $300. She might have notified the gate agent that she was sick. Southwest might have denied her boarding and allowed her to rebook her flight for the following week.

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I asked Southwest to comment on her story. Here’s what it had to say:

As always, it is important to do as much as possible to ensure a healthy workplace for our employees and a clean travel experience for our customers. In light of the current issues around both seasonal and H1N1 flu, we are following the recommendations of the CDC and working with federal health organizations to attempt to minimize the impact.

First and foremost, however, all customers should practice common sense. As recommended by the CDC, customers who are too sick to travel should stay home – for both their own comfort and the health of others.

As has always been our policy, if a customer is unable to travel because of an illness and is holding a nonrefundable reservation, they are able to use the funds in the reservation within 12 months of original purchase date to apply toward future travel – without a service charge.

That said, in extreme cases, we’ve been known to make exceptions to our policy. I’m sorry if the agent Amanda spoke with did not suggest that she contact our customer relations department for that consideration, and that she ultimately made the decision to travel.

If an cmployee encounters a customer who has flu-like illness while at the airport or inflight, our employees should follow the CDC’s guidance by asking the individual to use good cough etiquette and hand hygiene. Further, we are maintaining a supply of key items to support good hygiene such as hand soap and disposable towels, cleaners or cleaning wipes, tissues, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, gloves, and, for certain situations, facemasks.

Judging by Amanda’s note, it sounds like facemasks may have been distributed to several customers onboard, unless, of course, those customers brought their own.

Customers who were on Amanda’s flight may take comfort in knowing that all of our aircraft are equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters that effectively filter the 50-50 combination of outside and re-circulated air onboard each plane (hospitals use these same type HEPA filters to provide patients — and hospital personnel and visitors — with the cleanest air possible).

Nevertheless, we strongly suggest that customers who have the flu or flu-like symptoms honor the CDC’s recommendations and simply stay home.

Had Southwest followed its own policy and had Amanda followed CDC’s recommendations, she might have been able to avoid the most miserable six hours of her life. But surveys suggest most airline passengers would do exactly what she did.

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That can’t end well.

(Photo: roujo/Flickr Creative Commons)

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. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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