Airplanes Littered with Rat Droppings and Bed Bugs

Last Updated Apr 27, 2011 2:19 PM EDT

As if flying hadn't become miserable enough, feds have discovered evidence of rat droppings and urine on a Delta Airlines plane, while British Airways has admitted to a bed bug infestation on an aircraft and United Airlines passengers have complained they had to contend with bed bugs on their flights.

But it gets worse. The Food and Drug Administration authorities that inspected the Delta Air Lines plane on the ground in Atlanta found the droppings "too numerous to count" in the ceiling panels of the middle crossover galley and also need the food prep area. The FDA and the airline contend this was an isolated incident on one plane which was quickly pulled from service and cleaned.

Really? How many restaurants can honestly say they have not been plagued by rodents at least time to time?

A few years back, I remember a hidden camera revealed that an American Airlines aircraft had been overrun with mice that were eating the insulation on all the interior wiring. Not only was the plane grounded, but the repair and overhaul work was extensive and expensive.

And how do the rodents get on the plane? They sometimes hitch a ride inside catering carts. And how do they get into those carts? Either at the catering facility, or a far more prevalent reason -- they're already living inside the catering trucks that haul the carts.

Speaking of unwelcome travelers, there is also the case of those bedbugs. British Airways discovered this uncomfortable development after a passenger complained of being bitten on two separate flights. The critters had plenty of time to feed -- the woman was flying BA from Los Angeles to Heathrow in January, an 11-hour run, and later she claimed she was attacked on another long-haul between Bangalore to London.

BA pulled the two planes from service and fumigated, but only AFTER the woman set up a Web to complain about the situation and the lack of response from customer service. (You can read about her experience here: www.ba-bites.com). BA now admits there was evidence of bed bugs on the Los Angeles to London flight, but claims no infestation on the second plane.

In fairness, it's highly unlikely that BA brought the bed bugs on board. Chance are, it was due to a passenger (or passengers) transporting them in their carry-on bags.

As for the United Airlines passengers, one says he was flying business class from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. As he wrote in a letter published last summer in The New York Times,
In the car going home from the airport, I noticed a series of insect bites on the ankles of both feet that I had not had when I boarded the plane. They itched like crazy.

They were all over my back as well: my wife counted about 17 bites on my back, and there was a similar number on both feet. It took days for the itching to subside, and the scabs are still there. When I saw my physician, he instantly diagnosed them as bedbug bites.
Another formed a Facebook group, with a photo of bed bug bites she claimed to have gotten on a United flight.

According to a spokesman at United Airlines/Continental Airlines, "There is no merit to these claims. Our cabins and seats are regularly serviced, we found nothing unusual in our servicing of these aircraft and we received no other complaints from customers who flew on these airplanes or in these seats. We are certain these individuals did not encounter bedbugs on United aircraft."
So what can you do protect yourself against critters in the air?

Unfortunately, there's not much to do about mice or rats (but no one is forcing you to eat the food, anyway). No airline (or hotel) is going to fumigate a cabin or room after every flight or after every guest stay. It's impractical, expensive, and the actual statistics are still in your favor in terms of how likely you'll be affected or attacked.

But as for the bed bugs, there are solutions:
  • Bring your own pillow and blanket if you're taking a long-haul flight, and never pack them in your suitcase (instead stow them in their own plastic snap container). Then, when returning home, toss everything into the washer and dryer on very high heat for at least 20 minutes.
  • Or, buy the blanket and pillow the airline offers to sell you (NOT the ones you find scattered occasionally and infrequently in seat back pockets or in overhead compartments).
  • Don't put your coat or suit case on top of someone else's luggage. Bed bugs love suitcases, and can get in them easily. So, if you're traveling with a carry-on, and you put it in the overhead compartment, do NOT put it on top of another suitcase that's not yours, and whatever you do, don't put an article of clothing on top of that suitcase.
  • Don't ever put your luggage on your bed. If you're checking a bag, avoid the habit (and I admit to it, myself) of putting your suitcase on your bed to unpack it when you get to your hotel. Bad move. If you do, you might think you're sleeping tight, but the bed bugs might in fact...bite.
Have you ever seen an unwelcome creature on a plane?
Related:
  • Peter Greenberg

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