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What to do when your smelly airline seatmate makes you gag

During passenger boarding on a flight from Miami to Caracas, Venezuela, several travelers bypassed their seats and stormed into the aft galley where I was setting up the serving cart.

The flabbergasted fliers complained not about the cramped seating on our Boeing 757 or the lack of overhead bin space or our late departure.  Instead, the sources of their concern were the passengers in seats 30A and 30B.

Apparently, they lacked personal hygiene. 

“I paid too much money to sit next to those pigs,” one passenger said. “You have to do something!”

At times like these, I really hate my job. 

Dutifully, I exited the galley and crept up the aisle, sniffing like a bloodhound along the way. When I got to within about 10 feet of the alleged offenders, the air quality suddenly deteriorated.

The foul stench hit me like a Mike Tyson punch. I almost gagged. Never have I experienced such foul body odor on an airplane.

Inside our flight attendant manual — the bible of rules, regulations and step-by-step procedures governing every activity from passenger boarding to emergency evacuations — it spells out that a person can be removed from the aircraft for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, obnoxious, unruly or violent behavior; apparent intoxication or drug use; and dress that causes discomfort to others. And the airline also has the right to deny boarding anyone with insufferable body odor.

I retreated to the galley, which was now packed with perhaps a dozen people clamoring for the stinkers’ ouster. Fearing a passenger revolt, I reached for the inter-phone and told the purser about our predicament. The purser informed the captain.

After a few tense moments, the purser told me to send the couple to the front of the aircraft. 

Full of  trepidation, I approached the couple. “Excuse me,” I said, holding my breath and speaking from a constricted diaphragm. The two people, a middle-aged man and woman, turned in unison to look up at me. They seemed pleasant enough. Despite their odor, they wore crisp, neat clothing and smiled as I spoke.

“The purser needs to talk with you in the front of the aircraft.”

“The who?” the man asked.

I replied, “The purser. She’s in charge of the flight.”

“What does she want?”

Perhaps because I was running out of air, the words tumbled out.

“Passengers are complaining …they say…your body odor is offensive.”

He looked at me as if I were insane.

“We are not moving!”

I went back to the galley and again, telephoned the purser and told her the smelly passengers refused to cooperate.

Once again she relayed the message to the captain. This time he’d had enough. 

You never know what kind of captain you’re going to fly with. Most are supportive of the cabin crew’s efforts to deal with problematic passengers, but occasionally we’ll get a captain who simply doesn’t care.

Thankfully, on the stinker flight, our leader was more like Captain America. His tone left no doubt to who was in charge.

“You tell those people that if they don’t come to the front of this plane right now, I’ll have security remove them from the aircraft,” he said.

My stomach began to churn, partly because I was about to endure the horrific funk for the third time, but also because I may have erred.

After reading the fine print in my flight attendant manual, I realized that customers with an offensive odor may be removed from a flight only if the odor is due to questionable personal hygiene.

If the foul stench is associated with any form of disability (if a catheter bursts, for example) no matter how putrid the smell, legally, the passenger cannot be removed.

Fellow passengers simply have to deal with the inconvenience.

But how does a flight attendant determine whether body odor is medically or hygienically related? There are no inhalation guidelines in our manual. This was uncharted territory.

As passengers watched from the galley, I crept up the aisle, stood behind the couple and inhaled. This time I savored the stink. I let the putrefied air fill my nostrils.

My heightened sense of smell suggested that the good folks in 30-A and 30-B were suffering from nothing more than an acute aversion to deodorant. Perhaps a monthlong aversion. Oh. My. Lord. 

I relayed the captain’s orders. The subjects rose, grabbed their bags from the overhead bin and marched up the aisle, leaving 30 rows of gagging humanity in their wake.

When they reached the first-class cabin, premium passengers stood up and repositioned themselves in coach. The captain, who was now standing outside the cockpit, took one whiff and ordered the couple off the airplane.

Before disembarking, the man vowed to “Never fly this airline again!”

In response, several passengers applauded.

Elliott Hester is a flight attendant for a major airline.  

travel@latimes.com

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