Some travelers raise a stink on airplanes

Posted4/1/2012 5:45 AM

Many frequent fliers complain that air travel really stinks. And if you were one of 15 TSA agents working in the baggage department at Boston Logan International recently, you would probably agree.

Only you wouldn't be referring to the lack of service, long security lines, or angry passengers who are tired of being treated like cattle. You would be referring to an actual bag that exuded such a putrid odor you and your colleagues got physically sick.

According to an Associated Press story, the chemical emitting the foul odor caused headaches, throat tightness and eye problems. It was strong enough to send four of the agents to the hospital. Turned out they smelled a rat. Sort of. It came from a rodent repellent a China-bound passenger had packed in his bag.

This might be the first time TSA agents have suffered from inhaling. But not for many passengers. Odors on an aircraft at 30,000 feet seem to take on a life of their own.

Last week when I flew to St. Louis to meet my old flying partner for our monthly lunch, I was seated next to a man who brought his own brown bag. Shortly after takeoff he was dining on a burrito that made the row smell like a day-old greasy kitchen. If I hadn't buried my nose in my turtleneck, I would have needed my own brown bag.

It's not just the aroma of food that has you reaching for the seat pocket in front of you. On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, a flight attendant asked a woman to stop polishing her nails because it probably smelled like she was painting a house.

Apparently the woman went into the lavatory to finish the job. When she left the lavatory, a flight attendant nailed her. They got into an altercation, which ended with the men in blue meeting the flight and checking out her manicure on the ground in Houston. She spent enough time in jail to allow her nails to dry.

My old flying partner remembers a woman who decided it was time to change her baby's diaper just as the food cart arrived at her row. The diaper smelled worse than the in-flight meal. But the mother was oblivious to the passengers around her. She even handed the dirty diaper to the flight attendant, who tried not to gag while she continued asking passengers if they wanted the chicken or the beef.

It's not just the disgusting odors that upset passengers. A few years ago, on a flight to Paris, a woman dabbed on a lavender aromatherapy lotion. It smelled like she had bathed in it. She slept.

Nearby passengers thought she might have passed out and that they were about to do the same. One lady suffered such a bad headache from the fumes she was moved to another seat.

Agents have been known to refuse boarding to passengers whose personal hygiene makes their eyes water. But this is rare. Usually it isn't realized until you're at cruising altitude when there's no way out. It's this flying debris that is unaware or simply doesn't care if they offend other passengers. And that's pretty stinky.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at

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