Pondering on the cleanliness of airplanes is not something most of us like to think about when flying.
But while you might think your neighbor using a sick bag is as bad as things can get, one man was confronted by bodily fluids of a different kind when he found his feet on an airplane carpet still wet with a previous passenger’s blood and diarrhea.
Habib Battah was flying from Paris to Toronto on Air France on June 30 when he noticed a strange smell coming from the footwell under his and his wife’s seats shortly after takeoff.
“It smelled like manure,” he told CNN.
The pair were traveling on the Boeing 777 with their two cats – each in a separate carrier, in the footwell in front of the couple. They were moving temporarily from Lebanon to the US, where Battah, a Beirut-based journalist, will spend a stint as a university lecturer.
“It was our first time traveling with the cats, and I was thinking, ‘Oh god, they’ve had an accident, I’m so embarrassed.’
“Then I thought, maybe it’s someone’s body odor. I was sniffing and sniffing, then said, let me get the cats out.”
He crouched on the floor to check on the animals on his hands and knees. “I looked at the cats – the poor cats were totally fine,” he says.
The gruesome discovery
But what he did notice beneath the cat carriers was a wet stain on the floor – about 20 inches long and wide, he says. He flagged down a passing flight attendant.
“I said it smells like merde – s**t. She handed me wet wipes. I started wiping and it was red – blood red. And it kept coming up red. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ I just wanted to see what it was. After a while, one of the flight attendants said, ‘You’d better go wash your hands, and here are some gloves.’”
As Battah was cleaning, the flight attendant had passed the message on to her coworkers, and the captain was radioing Paris, asking what on earth was the blood red stain under seats 30A and 30B.
The news came back from Air France HQ: it was human blood. The day before, on a Paris -Boston flight, a male passenger had suffered what Battah says the crew called a “hemorrhage.”
The passenger had survived, and the captain of that flight had requested that the area be cleaned for the aircraft’s next flight back to Paris – but seemingly the cleaners had forgotten about the floor.
“I didn’t know it was blood until a flight attendant said, casually, ‘Oh, we heard another passenger had a hemorrhage’,” says Battah. “Then I noticed the cat carrier was stained as well.” The blood had soaked through to the carrier, which doubles as a backpack.
In a frenzy, he wanted to clean the bag – the cat still inside it. He moved to the galley area to keep cleaning, “trying to furiously get rid of this awfulness. I used a whole pack of wet wipes.”
He says that only one flight attendant seemed “angry [on Battah’s behalf], he was apologizing” but the others didn’t react. “It’s also a threat to the flight crew. I asked, what’s your protocol for this, but they said nothing. I’m pretty sure there is none.”
‘I thought I’d seen it all… until now’
It was a long flight for the couple, who say they were offered “two small bottles of Evian water” as recompense, and were given two blankets from business class to put on the floor, with powder to soak up the blood. The flight was full and they couldn’t be moved. “We had to sit there smelling the blood for the next seven hours,” he says. “The smell of rotten blood is like manure. I’d taken my shoes off at the start of the flight, and there was blood on my socks.”
Actually, it was manure, kind of. Three days later, he was called by Air France and told that the blood had been mixed with feces.
Air France said in a statement to CNN that a passenger had been unwell on a June 29 flight from Paris to Boston and was treated by medics on arrival.
“As per procedure in this type of situation, a complete clean-up of the area was requested and the row of seats was made unavailable on the return flight [from Boston to Paris],” the statement said.
“A customer travelling on the next flight from Paris (CDG) to Toronto (YYZ) reported residual traces of blood on the floor, soiling his personal belongings. The crew immediately assisted him in cleaning his belongings, providing him with suitable equipment such as sterile gloves and disinfectant wipes.
“As the flight was fully booked, it was not possible to move the passenger.
“An internal investigation has been launched to understand the reasons for this situation.”
Air France said it “understands and regrets the inconvenience caused by this situation” and that it was in touch with Battah.
“The risk of exposure to residual traces of blood on the carpet is low, if not non-existent.”
Battah says: “I’ve been covering Beirut for 20 years as a journalist. I’ve lived through wars, airstrikes, seen assassinations, car bombs, and narrowly survived the port explosion. I thought I’d seen it all. I didn’t expect to find more blood than I’ve seen in Beirut on an Air France plane.”
‘I brought that blood home’
In a “state of shock” on arrival, and unable to remove the cats, he’d picked up the carrier, slung it on his back as a backpack, and taken it with him to Toronto, where the pair are currently visiting Anna’s family.
“I brought that blood home. They sent me home with a biohazard. They never stopped me and said, ‘Hey, we don’t know what this patient had [wrong with him].’ It was so negligent,” he says.
“[The incident] was two flights before ours, so in Boston the clean-up didn’t happen. The plane returned to Paris, this bloody, dirty, sh**ty plane. And we got on it. That means other passengers were also exposed to it. I think they endangered their passengers’ wellbeing.
“I started to ask, ‘How do you not check? What are the protocols for biohazards?’ I couldn’t get them to tell me. It was as if there were none.”
Air France confirmed to CNN that the liquid appears to be blood and feces. When asked about their procedure for deep-cleaning biohazardous waste on board, they said that “specific products are used.”
It did not confirm whether the initial cleaning was done in Boston, or in Paris – after the plane flew back to France following the incident. However, it added that “the cleaning has been done, and the seat cushions had to be removed, resulting in the decommercialization of the row of seats” – suggesting that the plane was initially cleaned in Boston, with the cushions replaced in Paris. At neither point did cleaning crew notice that the floor was also soaked.
‘Clearly it was an error’
Is a carpet drenched in blood and feces really a low-to-nonexistent risk to passengers? Not according to Dr Richard Dawood, specialist in travel medicine at London’s Fleet Street Clinic.
“I don’t agree with that,” he says. “This is a very unhygienic situation, and we don’t know what the passenger was suffering from, or whether it was infective.
“It could have been blood and diarrhea from an infection, or from something like colitis, but either way, in a hospital setting this would have been treated as contamination and a biohazard.
“There are lots of blood-borne viral infections – hepatitis B, C, HIV – but mostly they require contact with broken skin, or a penetrating injury. All these things are of low incidence in the population, so the starting position is that the risk is relatively small, and the chances of it going through intact skin is incredibly small. But that’s not the point – it shouldn’t have happened.”
What’s more, he says that the way passengers behave on a plane could have added to the risk. “There lots of things passengers do on planes that involve eating and using their hands, and it’s not very easy to wash hands on a plane, it’s crowded, and it’s very easy for people to contaminate surfaces.”
In fact, the diarrhea may have been more hazardous than the blood. Dawood says that cleaning diarrhea without disinfecting it – as Battah ended up doing in the galley, near the food preparation area – can “aerosolize” its particles.
“The airline may only be considering the blood hazard, but mixed blood and stool is nasty, it gets everywhere. It’s easy to contaminate people’s hands and surfaces – I’d regard it as hazardous.”
“The plane should have been taken out of service until properly cleaned. Obviously they took the seats out of service, so they knew there was a problem and it should have been acted upon on the ground. Airlines should be good at this – clearly there was an error.”
However, as long as Battah and his wife remain symptom-free, he wouldn’t expect them to be tested for possible diseases.
Mind your hands onboard
Has the idea of what Battah went through put you off flying? Dawood says we should all be minding our hand hygiene in the air.
“People often think about the risks on a plane, but the process of getting to the airport – holding onto handles on public transport, touching surfaces, going through security, taking your shoes off and getting the bus to the plane… by the time you board, your hands are pretty filthy, and the first thing everyone wants to do after the ordeal of going through an airport is to relax into their seat, and be offered something to eat or drink.”
He suggests washing or sanitizing hands once you sit down.
Meanwhile, Battah – who is currently talking to lawyers, and posted gruesome photos in a Twitter thread – says Air France called him three days after the flight, offered to have the cats washed and suggested a $500 voucher. He declined their offer.
“I don’t think it’s right, I think it’s a serious biohazard and should be investigated thoroughly. I don’t want to be shushed with some change. Our airfare cost $2,500 – is a 20% discount worth sitting in blood and feces for? I think it was gross negligence and someone should be held accountable.
“Incidents happen – we’re human, we bleed – but once that plane lands, you’ve got to clean the aircraft. It’s egregious that it didn’t happen.”
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