Human waste on Delta flight flagged as 'biohazard issue'

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published September 7, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A passenger on an overseas flight had diarrhea that spread throughout the plane’s cabin. Due to a “biohazard issue,” the aircraft was forced to return to the airport, where it was cleaned and repaired. 

  • Experts say that flying with abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, and cramps is risky and that stress, anxiety, and limited access to bathrooms can all be problematic for someone who experiences GI issues.

A Delta flight turned around two hours into its journey from Atlanta, GA, to Barcelona, Spain, after a passenger experienced an onboard medical emergency: they had severe diarrhea aboard the flight, according to The Guardian.[]

In a recording from the cockpit shared on X (formerly Twitter), the airplane’s pilot could be heard saying that the situation was “a biohazard issue” due to “diarrhea all the way through the airplane.”

Footage shows fecal matter throughout the plane, covering much of the aisle floor. From the video, it is clear that the flight crew had tried to clean it as best as they could. The Guardian reports that passenger accounts noted the crew tried “their best to mop up the mess with paper towels and scented disinfectant.”[]

After an eight-hour delay, the 336 passengers eventually made it to Barcelona, during which a maintenance crew was dispatched to clean the Airbus A350 and replace an aisle carpet.[]

“‘Our teams worked as quickly and safely as possible to get our customers to their final destination. We sincerely apologize to our customers for the delay and inconvenience to their travel plans,’” a Delta spokesperson told CNN.[] 

One X user, John Hurdt, wrote, “Both my wife and I were on the flight. It was a mess. The pilots made the right decision to turn around. The ground crew ripped out the carpet and put new in. Considering the circumstances, the ground crew did a great job, along with the attendants and the pilots.”

While it is not clear whether the passenger had a health condition, Harvey Hamilton Allen Jr, MD, a gastroenterologist and Director of the Endoscopy and Esophageal Manometry Laboratories at St Luke’s Hospital in New York, says that patients experiencing active abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, and cramps shouldn’t risk it—and that they should be encouraged to stay off of an airplane. “All these symptoms can be an infectious process and contagious,” Dr. Allen says.

Dr. Allen also says patients should know that sudden changes in air and cabin pressure due to high altitude can trigger gastrointestinal (GI) issues. In fact, research conducted by the University of Zurich found that reduced oxygen levels can induce inflammation in the GI tract. Researchers note that inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients with at least one flare-up during 12 months had taken more flights over 2,000 meters above sea level within four weeks of the flare-up compared to patients in remission.[]

The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation says that passengers flying with IBD should be given a written action plan by their doctor in case their condition worsens during travel. Physicians should also encourage patients to obtain an “I Can’t Wait” identification card from the Foundation that explains their medical necessity to be first in line for the bathroom.[] 

Andrew Boxer, MD, a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey, adds that MDs should also encourage patients who plan to fly to prepare accordingly. “[They should] stay hydrated. Consuming beverages with electrolytes, such as sports drinks, can help. Also, they should stay away from coffee, which is a natural diuretic.”

Regardless of whether one experiences a health condition, like food poisoning, the flying experience can be triggering due to “the stress, anxiety, small space, limited mobility, limited bathroom facilities, and [limited] access to healthcare,” Dr. Allen says. 

“Diarrhea can cause trouble, particularly when a patient doesn't have easy access to a restroom,” Dr. Boxer adds. 

In the end, Dr. Boxer echoes Dr. Allen’s sentiments: If a patient believes they are in the midst of a flare-up, they shouldn’t fly. “If they are dehydrated or unable to keep up with hydration; if they feel like they are going to faint; if they notice blood in the stool; if they are nauseous or feel like they may vomit, or are exhibiting signs of a fever…then my recommendation would be not to fly,” he says.

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