Family “Forced” to Sit in Vomit on United Flight: Is It United’s Fault… or Theirs?

This is just gross.

A Rockville dad says his family was forced to sit in vomit on their flight home from Orlando, Fl. Sunday.

Scott Shirley and his family were returning to the D.C. area from Orlando on a United flight when they started to store their bags underneath the seats. Shirley and his wife noticed their bags were wet. [They…] were given two options, to either fly out the next day or stay in those seats. Due to his wife’s job, they had to make it back that night and could not take the next day flight.

United’s reply:

The situation Mr. Shirley described is certainly one that we wish no customer experiences, as our cleaners did not fully clean the seat area prior to departure. We offered them an alternate flight, but they decided to remain onboard. Our agents did the best they could in the short time they had to accommodate Mr. Shirley and keep the flight on time. We’re reaching out to apologize for his experience.

That this was at the customer’s seat is the fault of:

  1. The previous passenger who was the source of it

  2. United for failing to ensure that it was cleaned between flights

That the customer experienced this inflight is the fault of:

  1. The customer who chose to sit there instead of taking another flight
  2. United for not sending cleaners on to handle the mess right then and there

The next available flight was the next day. The passenger had to go to work. Understood.

Flights cancel, for a variety of reasons – weather (even in some other part of the country), mechanical issues. If the flight had cancelled the woman wouldn’t have been to work at her government agency the following morning. She could have viewed this as an irregular operations situation. They made the decision not to, does that mitigate in some sense the extremeness of the situation or the way this story is portrayed as United “made them sit in vomit on flight”..?

I do feel for the family, because that’s disgusting. And United shouldn’t have said “sit in the seat or take a later flight,” they might have said:

  • Sit in the seat or take a flight tomorrow

  • Either way you get [a significant ownership stake in the company in the form of future travel and/or miles.

Or they might have said “give us 10 minutes we’ll get that cleaned up pronto.” Clearly an airline doesn’t want to delay a flight, even for the sake of other customers. This would have been the last Orlando – Washington Dulles flight UA438 arriving 9:13pm. Now, a United inline connection (transferring United-to-United can allow as little as 30 minutes between flights. Still there aren’t even theoretically going to be many connecting passengers flying onward from DC on flights leaving 9:45pm or later. United would have known if there were any.

I’ve boarded a flight and found a seat cushion soaked in other things, and the airline was good enough to quickly swap out the seat cushion in about 3 minutes.

This could have been handled better on a number of dimensions. And United clearly owns this. I just wonder if the notion of being ‘forced’ to sit in this isn’t quite the right way to frame it given that the family weighed the tradeoffs and made a decision, albeit one without great options provided.

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. […] So that got me to thinking.  Let’s not turn this post into a “whether babies belong in first class” post – since that’s probably a discussion for another day!  I wanted to think about the NICE things that Travel (especially in cramped quarters in the back of an airplane) are stressful situations, and often seem to bring out the worst in us.  I often like to joke about the time that a fellow passenger told my wife and I that we were “the type of people that shouldn’t have children“, or stabbing each other with pens, and then there’s the story of United (supposedly) FORCING a family to sit in (near?) vomit. […]


  1. I have to say that were I to vomit on an airplane, I would clean it up myself, there is no question about that, it’s just good manners and how I was raised. No question. I would also clean the vomit of a person traveling with me, because it’s the right thing to do.

    However, there is *no excuse* for an airline to allow (or force) people to get on an airplane that has vomit on a seator floor. for politeness reasons also, but also because of medical liability. This is disgusting. It’s dangerous. And it’s wrong.

  2. I am assuming that the flight was full. I think United should have asked for volunteers to take the flight the following day and compensated the volunteers in the same way it would have if the flight had been overbooked. One family shouldn’t have to suffer just because they were unlucky enough to have the barf seats. (If I had to sit where someone else had barfed, I would probably start barfing myself.)

  3. I don’t understand how they were forced to sit in vomit if they noticed their bags were wet when they put them under the seat. Assuming they put the bags under the seat in front of them, would that mean an air sick bag leaked through the front pocket?

  4. “…our cleaners did not fully clean the seat area…”

    Right, and the cleaners are not pressed for time at all.

    “We offered them an alternate flight, but they decided to remain onboard….”

    The alternate flight was on a different day. Fine by the contract of carriage; absurd by common sense.

    “Our agents did the best they could in the short time they had to accommodate Mr. Shirley and keep the flight on time.”

    Plenty of MCO-WAS nonstops, and plenty of reasonable 1-stops (DL via ATL; US via CLT) exist. How thoroughly did agents search? And on-time performance is secondary to safety; an active biohazard, viz. vomit, should ground a plane until it is clean.

    What a foolish, offensive, and disastrous reply by United.

  5. Clearly it’s UA’s fault for not cleaning the plane, but UA didn’t force them to sit in vomit. They were offered other options, they chose to not take advantage of them.

  6. Is it the guy who walked up and kicked me in the nuts’ fault for kicking me or is it my fault for standing in public where anything can happen? Obviously this is United’s fault as keeping the plane *at a minimum* sanitary — if not clean — is their responsibility.

  7. Are you kidding me? When I purchase a ticket I would assume the seat assigned to me will be in “good way of use” meaning it works, it is clean and it is safe. I understand they were given the option to deplane and take another flight and chose not to but anyway they should be compensated since they did not receive the product in the way they should.

  8. I’m a flight attendant and I’ve delayed flights because a passenger threw up on the last flight and it was not properly cleaned. – Mind you this has only happened a coupl of times in my 9 years. It is ridiculous to truly expect a passenger to sit in that mess.

  9. United has a bank of departures at 10PM, I would think there were a decent number of passengers connecting.

    I think the best outcome would have been to offer up a VDB, I’m sure they’d have takers.

  10. Ewwwwwwwww.
    How can anyone argue UA should not have held the flight until it was cleaned? It would take me years…scratch that…. 30 days of therapy…scratch that….some good benzos from a shrink to get over thinking about this .
    And I’m a guy who forgets to shower until my dog refuses to sleep in the same bed.

  11. To me, “Forced to sit in vomit” and “Forced to choose between sitting in vomit and being significantly inconvenienced” are about the same. Obviously no one had a gun to their head and was shouting “SIT IN THE VOMIT!” and I doubt anyone read it that way. But I’m less worried about “how to frame it” and more concerned that United decided the best course of action was to give them two options, one of which was to sit in vomit.

  12. They should have closed off those seats and if there were no others handled it as an overbooking situation offering vouchers to anyone who would take the next flight. I and many others I suspect would have jumped up at the chance.

    Even then they needed to have cleaners come onboard to clean up vomit which smells horrible and is a bio-hazard. It is bodily waste, even if it came out of another end.

    Instead they have a million + dollars worth of horrible publicity and an image (and smell) that will linger for a long time. All because they don’t have flexible enough decision makers to even do the right thing.

  13. This sounds like we are hearing only one side of the story, meant to generate more clicks and buzz. Or the family has talked to a lawyer and is trying to exaggerate the disservice. If the bags were wet, it was the ground that had vomit. Nobody was sitting in it. Both are gross, but there’s a big difference between having your shoes on a wet floor and actually sitting on vomit.

    I don’t know what United tried. I think they should be willing to book the customer on another flight, even if it means paying for their seat on another airline, but in my experience they don’t do that unless you’re a high value customer. If you’re booked on a cheap fare, they’ll only move you to the next equivalent flight.

  14. United is a horrible airline. I chose never to fly them again some time ago. This is a case in point.

  15. I was vomited on by another passenger (the person behind me) on American during an overnight flight from Hawaii to LAX. The flight attendants handed me paper towels and sprayed air freshner. (One actually said he couldn’t do anything because vomit made him gag.).
    The parent of the teenager who threw up on me then yelled at me “he’s a kid, these things happen, don’t bother the flight attendants!” The flight attendants and parents refused to clean up the vomit on the seat itself and refused to move me to an open seat in business. The flight attendnat said that would be compensation and Iwould have to ask American for compensation. (They gave me 7500 miles.). The flight into LAX was delayed so I didn’t have time to buy a sweatshirt and had to fly home shivering in my tshirt because the only heavier shirt I had smelled of vomit.
    I’m a million miler with American and was platinum for many years before this happened. Since then (about 3 years ago), I have not paid to buy a ticket on American — I’ve only redeemed miles and added to my balance via credit cards.

  16. It’s pretty clear that United isn’t interested in avoiding negative press. If they were, they’d be a very different airline.

    There’s so many, better, ways this could have been handled that it’s hard to imagine that backlash was anywhere on the list of concerns these United employees had. The fact that a random group of commenters have offered up a number of viable alternate solutions speaks to that.

    I travel frequently and have done so for many years. I also have many friends and colleagues that travel frequently. Truth is, nobody I know, except for a couple of 1Ps and Global Services members, ever have anything nice to say about any part of the U tied experience. I myself haven’t flown United in years because their level of customer care was so poor when I was a Plat flying out of BDL weekly…and now I live in Denver, so that takes some effort.

  17. I just sat down in some more United vomit when I reflexively still bought a United ticket OKC-FLL and looked down the summary email to see that they are only crediting me with half the mileage. I immediately canceled the flight and booked comparable on AA for full mileage.

    Who are they kidding thinking they will downgrade 30 year customers by giving them half of what they’ve always earned.

    They have just lost me as a customer. I’ll continue doing Opinion Miles surveys to keep a free ticket in the works, but never another dollar to United until they give me back what I had for 30 years.

    I once had a very high opinion of Jeff Smisek because of the way he ran Continental in the legacy footsteps of Gordon Bethune. If he doesn’t pull his head out of the clouds soon he will look around at a lot of missing customers who flew United for decades. Vomit, indeed.

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