Melanie Haiken, Contributor
“I’m insatiably curious about how to stay healthy & where to go next.”
Just because you haven’t heard much about bed bug-infested airplanes doesn’t mean that economy or business class seat is free of the icky pests. While the topic hasn’t hit the headlines the way bed bugs in hotels has, the stories are getting out.
Passengers Go Viral with Bed Bug Complaints
According to the Daily Mail, British Airways was forced to fumigate two planes after discovering a bed bug infestation on a Los Angeles-London flight. However, BA did not act quickly; the business class passenger, Zane Selkirk, became so disgruntled by the airline’s lack of response to her complaints that she set up a website and posted photos of her bite-covered arms, legs and feet online and they went viral and it wasn’t until then that BA conducted an investigation and found the bugs. Another passenger wrote an op-ed letter to the New York Times last year after flying United Airlines to Washington D.C. from L.A. — again in business class — and arriving covered in bites his doctor diagnosed as bed bug bites.
Yet search for official reports or statistics about bed bugs on airplanes and you won’t find much. “There are numerous cases of bed bugs being spread on airplanes,” according to Bed-Bugs.com, a referral site for exterminationservices. “Bed bugs can spread through close proximity with fellow travelers as well as their belongings. They also thrive where there is frequent turnover of people. On airplanes, people are in close proximity, are not able to move other than on the plane, and their belongings are required to stay untouched for long periods of time. This is an excellent recipe for bed bug transmittal.”
Of course, it’s easy to imagine that the last thing the airlines want to talk about is passengers bringing home a bed bug infestation as a result of an overpriced, under-served flight. And they’re not likely to add fumigation to their standard cleaning procedures. So what can you do to protect yourself?
How to Stay Bed Bug-Free While Flying
Several companies are coming to the rescue with products designed to protect against bed bugs in transit.
- Cover Your Seats Invented by a New York entrepreneur fed up with worrying about bed bugs at the movies, Bug Off seat covers are light stretchable plastic covers that are easy to slip over airplane or movie theater seats. They’re light and packable and provide a bug-proof layer between the upholstery and you. You could accomplish the same thing by bringing a box of saran wrap and encasing your seat in plastic, but these seat covers are much easier to use and the fabric is also comfortable to sit on. Several other companies, BedGuard and Seat Defender have also jumped into this market, but I’ve tried Bug Off covers myself and can attest that they’re big enough to go over any airline seat and the strong fabric doesn’t rip even on a long flight. At $2.99 they’re also not a big investment.
- Bring your own pillow and blanket. In Zane Selkirk’s horrific experience, it was the blanket “crawling with bed bugs” that caught her eye. It doesn’t have to get that extreme, though, to suggest it’s best to beware airline blankets. After all, during last year’s H1N1 flu epidemic, many airlines pulled the blankets fearing they could transmit the virus. Pack a travel pillow (inflatable if you’re tight for space) and a blanket or pashmina shawl. Or just dress in warm layers instead.
- Plastic Bag Your Carry On Since it’s way to easy for bed bugs to slip into your carry on while it’s stored under your seat. The best way to prevent this happening is to encase it in a plastic bag, such as a shopping bag or kitchen-sized garbage bag.
- Stop Bed Bugs Before They Get In Your House The real problem with bed bugs isn’t when they bite you en route (the bites heal quickly and don’t cause any lasting damage), it’s when they come home with you and set up housekeeping in your home. The way to keep this from happening is with stringent preventive measures. Don’t bring luggage or carry-ons inside your home, but empty them outside and wash clothes and anything else that’s washable. A hot dryer will also kill bedbugs, so dry anything you don’t want to wash. Put the suitcase and bag itself in a plastic bag and store for two weeks.
Bed bugs aren’t the only health problem on planes, of course; ever since the H1N1 epidemic last year there’s been increasing attention on the problem of flu and cold transmission on airlines. Luckily, there’s lots you can do to stay flu-free while travelling.