After the safety demonstration had ended, my colleagues and I were completing our final cabin walk-through before sitting in our jump seats for takeoff when several flight attendant call buttons throughout the cabin began chiming. The questions from passengers were all the same: What’s that smell?
A male passenger announced loudly that the scent was reminiscent of fuel or oil from his war days. A buzz began and the passengers began to panic. After coasting up and down the aisle a final time, the only thing I could pinpoint was that the odour was in the rear of the cabin. As we were still taxiing, I called the captain and told him about the peculiar scent and the near-hysterical passengers. The captain agreed it was best to turn the plane around and have maintenance check out the aircraft.
As the captain made an announcement explaining our change of plans, a passenger discreetly motioned to me. “I think I figured out what where the odour is coming from,” he said while pointing to the couple in front of him. Indeed. The couple had been indulging in a homemade curry-infused dish.
Egg salad, limburger sandwiches... all far too smelly for flight. And the stink doesn't stop with food.
Considering that ceiling fans and roll-down windows are not options aboard commercial aircraft, limiting and avoiding stenches is imperative and every passenger must do their job to help keep the cabin air smelling decent. Here's what you can do to avoid olfactory offences.
No, you shouldn't take off your shoes
By now you’ve probably seen the passenger-shaming photos of people propping bare feet up on fellow passenger seats. Guess what: It’s not okay.
In fact, your shoes should never be removed inflight. Feet have 250,000 sweat glands, more than any other body part, and emit roughly half a pint of sweat every day. If you must, wear comfortable shoes but the only time you should take your shoes off when flying is when going through security.
Yes, avoid stinky scents
Strong perfumes, colognes and lotions can trigger allergies or headaches. Chelsea Meirose, a flight attendant for a US carrier, tells passengers to not even think about removing nail polish or painting fingernails and toenails. Nail polish and polish remover are noxious and quite the mess to clean up if either spills.
The safest scent is no scent at all. Smelling as neutral as possible will offend no one.
Yes, you should be mindful of what you bring to eat onboard
During a recent episode of the Awesome Etiquette podcast, hosted by etiquette experts Daniel Senning and Lizzie Post, the topic of eating in carpools was covered. Senning said that sometimes food scents and odours in confined spaces aren’t limited to obvious spices, like curries or garlic. “Some people are sensitive to bananas while other foods to avoid are tuna fish and Italian subs.” When in doubt he says, “Stay away from foods that are smelly or messy.”
Or just stick to what's being offered onboard the plane. Chances are, if the airline has it for sale, it's a food item whose qualities (aromatic or otherwise) were designed with passengers in mind.
“There are so many smells that circulate an airplane, and many passengers have a heightened sensitivity to them,” says fight attendant Chelsea Meirose, who also concurs that flying is not the time to make a tuna fish sandwich. “Smells travel quickly onboard. Opt for the slightly less potent in-flight snack before we welcome you aboard or enjoy it in the terminal.”
No, don't overdo it at the airport bar
Not smelling like a pub when you board the aircraft is another good idea. Sitting at the hotel lounge for hours can make your breath reek of alcohol, and if airline employees smell it they may deny you boarding. As any airline employee will attest, it’s easier to deal with a drunk on the ground than it is in the air since escorting passengers up a jetway is much easier than being rerouted to the closest airport once in the air. Your best bet is to enjoy one or two drinks but don’t indulge in more than that. If you’re partying the night before, keep your drinking in check too. You may not smell any next-day stench, but everyone else will, and your fellow passengers will resent you.
Yes, the lavatory is your friend
Humans, well, naturally transmit gas, and there’s not much you can do about it... other than escape to the lavatory to relieve yourself.
It's worth keeping mind, since science says that people are actually more prone to flatulence when they're flying — the drop in pressure makes you feel more bloated. So before flying, avoid high fibre foods that inspire such reactions, like beans.
No, do not change your baby on your tray table
Family travellers have a lot to deal with before even mentioning what babies do best. Parents who need to change a stinky nappy should always carry plastic bags that seal well so no smells sneak out. A major faux pas is changing infants on tray tables. Instead, parents should have a nappy changing pad onhand and ask the flight attendants were the best location is to change the nappy. Oftentimes it’s galley floor or an empty row of seats. When in doubt, it’s best to ask.
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What do you do when you’re a passenger and heinous scents surround you? Assuming you can’t get away or change seats, make sure the overhead air vent is your best friend. Open the valve full blast and make sure it’s blowing your way. Next, close you’re eyes and feel the wind in your hair. You’ll be on the ground before you know it.
Beth Blair is a former flight attendant and a freelance writer.
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