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Crewed Talk: The Tricky Topic of Smelly Passengers


Stinky travelers might be the most awkward situation both passengers and flight attendants have come up against on a plane. It kind of annoys me when the media reports a passenger removal for this reason, and they treat it like it’s a unicorn sighting. It’s not actually that rare, and it seems plain ol’ gossipy. It’s not like bad odor is the same as bad behavior. It’s just the personally mortifying experience of some unfortunate soul. Do we have to report that nationally?

Can you tell how all-around sensitive and dreadful I find these situations? Who wants to be the guy who has to tell someone they need to get off the plane because of their body odor? But who wants to stay enclosed with that stench for hours? The answer to both, with equal force, is a big, fat “No one!” The worst part of it all is that just ramps up the possibility that it could be handled badly. Luckily, as a flight attendant, we don’t have to deal with it directly. That should help, but it doesn’t always.

If a passenger is to be removed, that’s the Complaints Resolution Officer’s job (remember this?). I’ve had an egregious, long-haul smell situation that should have been resolved smoothly. Everyone was unanimously in favor, but the CRO dreaded doing it. The purser was a pushover, and the CRO used that to wiggle out of the responsibility, even though the rest of us stood there begging. Off we went with furious passengers, for 9 hours. Heck, it’s possible something similar was brewing with this story — although, as reported, the story features just a jerky flight attendant who simply took it upon himself to handle the situation.

If you end up in a stinky situation, here are some things to consider:

1. We’re Unlikely to Take This on Voluntarily.

If you’re hoping for relief, you have to inform your crew. Even if we notice — and sometimes we might not — if you seem fine, we’ll assume you are.

2. Is the Person in Good Health?

If odors are due to illness or disability, there’s legally nothing to be done except engage our empathy.

3. Are You Still at the Gate?

This is the only time something can really be done about the offending passenger. Possibly.

4. What Happens to Them?

My airline’s policy is to always assume and act as if the problem is the result of a lengthy travel itinerary that has affected the person’s usual hygiene routine. The removed passenger will be given a voucher to an airport hotel or lounge with shower, as well as access to their bags (for a change of clothes) before re-booking.

5. What if We’re Not at the Gate?

If we can move you or them to empty seats, of course we will. If we can’t, consider asking for a coffee pack. It’s isn’t elegant, but it works! Here’s a quick side tip: Coffee packs are also great for when someone has been sick in the cabin.

The good news is that four out of five times, offending smells have usually just been ratcheted up by travel stress, regardless of the underlying cause. If you give the odorous person 5 to 10 minutes to “defluster” — after they’ve hoisted their suitcase, removing their sweater and had time to sit down — the smell usually settles down.

My advice is for everyone to work together to keep the person still. As a flight attendant, I’d try something like: “Would you like to be covered with a blanket, sir? Don’t move! I’ll just tuck you right in! Right up to your chin… Need something from your suitcase? I beg you, let me get that!” I’m nice and all, but if you ever find me being suspiciously helpful to you? It might be worth asking yourself whether you’ve had a very, very long itinerary…

[Photo: iStock]

Comments are Closed.
go_around October 4, 2014

Hang on, in your airline the person is given a free voucher to the lounge or shower? Next time I'll consider not washing for a day before flying then, for free lounge access. ;-)

AussieOzzie October 4, 2014

Equally bad in its own way are passengers who smell too good... as in the ones who visit the Duty Free Shop and test numerous fragrances prior to boarding the plane. Gives me a headache just thinking about it. But wait! I've got an idea. If the person who smells really bad is given a seat next to someone who smells too good they'll effectively cancel out each other and hence the odorous problem is solved.

IanFromHKG October 4, 2014

Sometimes the smell can be because passengers are trying too hard. On one longhaul flight a fellow passenger had bathed in Cologne. The smell was so overpowering that within two minutes of getting on the 'plane I was developing a migraine (highly unusual for me, which gives you an idea how bad it was). So strong, in fact, I couldn't be sure where it was coming from. So I quietly asked an FA to confirm my suspicions, and very humbly explained to the passenger in question if he could wash some of it off, emphasising all the time that I acknowledged it was my problem, not his, but I would be ever so grateful etc. just as I did this, the FA came along with a HUGE tray of hot towels for him! He took it very gracefully and sponged away. Thank heavens! This was the first and only time I hd such a reaction to cologne, but I know others are more sensitive than I am. I suspect that can be as much of a problem for some as more natural odours.