Delta Air Lines “Diarrhea Flight”: Why Airlines Need Better Cleaning

On Friday night a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Barcelona had to turn around after a passenger let loose diarrhea all the way through the aircraft.

Passengers returned to Atlanta and waited while Delta cleaned the aircraft and found a new crew (as the original one timed out). They were sent on their way using the same plane at 2:57 a.m. Saturday morning. Video has now come out showing the inside of the aircraft.

I feel badly for the passengers who had to endure that. I feel badly for the cleaners whose job it was to make the plane serviceable in a short amount of time. And I actually feel bad for… the passenger. Imagine that this happened, you’re sitting in it. And you’re trapped inside a plane with everyone else on board looking at you, disgusted with you, and you’re to blame for their delay – the extra hours they have to sit on a plane, their discomfort. And you have to know that you’re about to experience 15 minutes of fame you never wanted, even if (hopefully) you aren’t named.

As you get off the plane in Atlanta, passengers around you are going to point to you. They’re going to whisper, “that’s the one who…”

The truth is, though, that while not nearly as dramatic as this human waste is all over aircraft, every day. Here’s a Southwest Airlines flight on Wednesday.

Bear in mind,

  • You shouldn’t ever go into the lavatory of an aircraft barefoot, or just in socks. The floors get wet and sticky, and that’s not water or soda. And those floors aren’t being cleaned between domestic flights, either!

  • Don’t stick your hand in the seat back pocket in front of you, either.

  • Airlines often stock replacement seat cushions even at outstations (not just hubs) because customers will… make messes in their seat.

During the pandemic there were extra cleaning procedures. At some airlines they lasted even after we learned that Covid-19 was spread primarily via aerosols rather than fomites. Some carriers just performed weekly electrostatic spraying.

Historically cleaning was one of the first things to get cut during challenging economic times. Airline ‘deep cleans’ used to happen just every year or year and a half which is just gross. Covid-19 notwithstanding many of us have come to prefer cleanliness in our lives, but it’s hard to expect that on an aircraft even when passengers don’t eat the fish.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I really feel for the passenger concerned. I also hope it was something he ate in the terminal not norovirus, for the sake of everyone else on the flight.

    (Norovirus outbreaks on long haul flights aren’t common, but they happen).

    Another reminder to take disinfectant wipes and use them on the tray. Especially on short haul flights, because it probably wasn’t cleaned.

    Also check that your seat is equipped with a barf bag. Even if you don’t normally get air sick. I’ve seen people get so sick they needed multiples…

    (I’ve been air sick a couple of times, it takes pretty bad turbulence, but it can happen. I’ve also been on that flight where the turbulence got so bad the *flight attendants* were reaching for them…and you know that it’s bad at that point! Thankfully everyone was smart on that one and stayed strapped in, no injuries, just a horribly miserable flight).

  2. Difficult situation and Delta did the right thing immediately.

    On the other hand, is it really a good idea to serve chilli dogs in the ATL international terminal (think “The Varsity” on Concourse F)? Before an 8 or even 10+ hour flight?

  3. The passenger was an elderly individual.

    I wrote an airline’s cleaning program and implemented it. A lot of what is assumed is not exactly correct, and doesn’t take into account the types of treatments/chemicals used and what exactly they do. But I’ve found laying out facts here doesn’t usually prove fruitful.

  4. “bio hazard”, please. Nobody ever had to change kid’s diapers? Don’t eat it, everyone stay in their seats for 5 minutes, put some gloves on, pick it up and fly on. Ridiculous, unnecessary costly diversion. Everyone should be ashamed. If the passenger was named or mentioned in the video or procedures, I’l sue for a HIPAA violation of privacy rights..

  5. @Steven “pick it up” – tells me you didn’t watch the video! That aircraft needed to be stripped down to metal.

  6. Something I haven’t seen asked anywhere is, how did this come to happen in the first place?
    Clearly there are medical conditions that would cause such a thing to afflict a person, but to have such short notice as the sufferer????
    Those of who fly a lot have all seen at least one FA who likes to yell at passengers who *have* to visit the restroom when the seat belt sign is on. My bet in this case is that the poor passenger was denied access to the lavatory until they no longer had a choice, and had run out of time.
    I’m sorry for everyone on the flight but especially the passenger who soiled themselves and the floor. I cannot imagine a more humiliating scenario.

  7. I can never understand on a long-haul flight when I see people go into the lav in socks. That is absolutely disgusting. Do you not look what is on the floor!?

  8. Woofie
    A comment above yours and other places on the internet say it involved a senior citizen. They do not have the control younger people do.
    The flight was over Virginia so likely after dinner w lines to the lavs. Whether that was a factor is unknown

  9. All kinds of potential causes. Could have been as simple as food poisoning or accidental ingestion of an allergen before getting on the flight. Might or might not have been related to age. Crohn’s and IBD could cause this too, of course.

    But if it was food poisoning or an allergic reaction, we all know those can come on with very little warning. I suspect everyone on this blog has eaten *something* and had a bad reaction. If there was any kind of line to the lav…

    Poor guy. Having a reaction like that on a plane *shudder*.

  10. @Tim Dunn
    Saw your comment.
    LOL, I think I also qualify as “senior”. E.g., I have a free bus pas in the UK 🙂

  11. And people think the business class seats that they sleep on are getting cleaned properly after each flight?! I’ve seen the business sections when exiting and they usually look like a tornado hit them.

  12. I always take a pair of disposible hotel type slippers with me on a long flight. Amenity socks are too absorbent.

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