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If a seatmate smells bad, come clean to the crew

If a seatmate smells bad, come clean to the crew -- quickly
From the Los Angeles Times
By: Laurie Berger
December 4, 2005

Question: On a packed, 16-hour flight to Japan, my three children and I were seated in a row next to a family that had not bathed recently. The odor was very strong. The flight attendant would periodically come by and spray air freshener, and the offending adult passengers would occasionally douse themselves with rosewater in the lavatory. I developed a migraine headache and could not eat anything. I paid for four full international fares and had a miserable flight. I'd like to know if I have any rights on a long flight. Airlines can remove intoxicated passengers from a flight. What about those with offensive odors?

Marna Geisler

Santa Monica

Answer: Many fliers think there is no solution to this problem, but passengers do have recourse — if they time it right.

Most U.S. carriers have a little-known clause in their ticket rules (under safety and comfort) that says they can refuse to fly a malodorous passenger.

"If someone has an offensive odor that's not caused by a disability or illness, American can remove them from the flight," says airline spokesman Tim Wagner.

American established this policy in 1999 after it tried to deplane a family when passengers complained of a "noxious odor."

The family sued the airline and settled out of court. Soon afterward, the carrier wrote a body-odor policy into its customer-service contract. Other domestic airlines followed suit.

Foreign carriers don't have official body-odor policies, but they do have procedures for dealing with offensive fliers.

"It's a very sensitive subject, so we don't put it in our contracts of carriage, but our customer-service people are well trained to deal with it," says British Airways spokesman John Lampl.

Much of what airlines will do for affected passengers is about goodwill. "It boils down to marketing, not safety," says Thomas Dickerson, a New York judge and author of "Travel Law" (2004, Law Journal Press). "Airlines don't want to offend passengers. They want them to be happy and fly again."

But what's considered offensive?

"Everyone has their own threshold," American's Wagner says. "We try to resolve the situation with respect [for all parties]."

Northwest spokeswoman Jennifer Bagdade says, "It's handled on a case-by-case basis."

Most airlines leave these decisions to front-line staff. If your complaint passes the sniff test — and the plane isn't full — most airlines will change your seat, even if it means an upgrade to first class.

"Our cabin crew has the ability to do that, even though it's not written in stone," says Thai Airways marketing coordinator Alden Pelayo.

What if there are no extra seats, or at least not enough for a whole family to move to, as in Geisler's case?

"We do whatever we can to make passengers as comfortable as possible," Pelayo says.

Often, international carriers will cover up the problem with air freshener. But that sometimes can cause discomfort to people sensitive to strong perfumes.

British Airways says it corrects the problem at the source, doling out first-class pajamas and amenity kits with toiletries to odorous fliers. "We ask them to go to the bathroom and wash up," Lampl says.

Not surprisingly, it's easier to handle the problem before the plane's buttoned up, when airlines can tactfully offload the offender.

"This came up on a [transcontinental] flight recently," says American's Wagner. "We spoke to the person off the plane, asked for their permission to disembark, gave them a hotel voucher, told them to clean up and rebooked them on the next flight."

What happens when a crew won't remove the offensive flier?

The airline can't hold you hostage. On U.S. carriers, you have the right to get off and be rebooked on a later flight, even if takeoff is delayed to remove your checked bags. (Security rules do not allow domestic carriers to fly unattended luggage.)

"If the airline doesn't do anything for you, it has violated its own contract and can be held liable," says San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik.

But if you don't discover until mid-flight that the odor wafting from first class is not freshly baked cookies, be prepared.

"Sometimes, there's nothing you can do," says Klaus Billep, executive director of the Pacific Area Travel Assn., Los Angeles chapter. "That's why you should always carry along a small bottle of perfume or scented cream," he says.

Savvy fliers carry lavender or peppermint to dab under the nose when odor strikes.

When all else fails, "you might have to grin and bear it," British Airways' Lampl says.

Avian flu raises cancellation issue

Question: If I'm forced to cancel my trip because of an avian flu pandemic, will travel insurance cover the cost?

Answer: Many people are asking about this; unfortunately, it's too soon to tell.

Technically, pandemic-related cancellations are not covered by insurance. And with a global spread of bird flu more a threat than reality, big travel insurers have remained silent on the topic. That doesn't mean they're not cooking up pandemic policies in their back rooms.

"Our industry is in active discussions right now," says John Ansell, president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Assn., a trade group.

Peter Evans, executive vice president of Insuremytrip.com, an online provider, says, "They just don't want to take a risk on something they can't quantify yet."

In the next few months, however, insurance companies could begin offering some protection, he predicts. "But it'll be limited to certain cities or countries; they won't lop off an entire region."

A government-issued quarantine also could up the ante for travelers, says Fred Noble, executive of sales and marketing for San Diego-based CSA Travel Protection. "A quarantine is a pretty drastic measure," he says. "It would restrict travel to a destination" and could be covered under existing policies as 'unplanned cancellation of transportation.' "

So how can you hedge your bets?

•  Don't bank on the goodwill of travel suppliers. During recent disasters, carriers bent their rules on refunds and travel vouchers. But how long can they keep paying out?

•  Buy your trip with a brand-name charge card, says Kathy Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. If planes stop flying to an area, it could be considered "nonperformance of service," she says. "The big cards have been historically good at paying on those claims."

•  For an extra layer of protection, it may pay to buy "cancel-for-any-reason" waivers, typically sold by suppliers. Although such policies are risky — you're not covered if the supplier goes out of business — it might be worth the gamble for pandemic peace of mind.

Laurie Berger welcomes your questions but cannot respond to all of them. Send e-mail to travel@latimes.com or write to Travel Q&A, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Please include your name, city and phone number.