Bitten by bugs on my Delta Air Lines flight to New York

Patricia Sweeney says she suffered multiple insect bites on a recent Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to New York. “The bites were most likely bed bugs or fleas,” she says. “I had a severe reaction to them and developed an infection.”

But that wasn’t the worst part. Sweeney, who later that day made a connection to another Delta flight to Shannon, Ireland, notified her flight crew about the bites. She says they gave her three choices:

• Leave the flight immediately.

• Get off the plane, seek medical attention, and fly later.

• Give up my the economy comfort class seat and sit in the rear of the plane.

It isn’t immediately clear why the airline wanted her to surrender her premium seat. Maybe the crewmembers were afraid that she had brought the bugs on board with her. (If that’s true, then why would it be OK to unleash a swarm of bedbugs on economy class passengers, and not the rest of the Delta flight?) She allowed herself to be downgraded and flew to Ireland.

Now Sweeney wants answers.

“If you looked at my entire flight itinerary, you will have noticed that I had been in and on Delta’s terminals and planes for the previous 10-plus hours,” she says.

Her first email to Delta Air Lines resulted in a boilerplate response and the offer of a $200 voucher.

“Please allow me to express my sincerest apologies regarding the lack of interest the Delta Supervisor showed when you sought assistance,” it said. “In addition, I would also like to apologize for the numerous bites and discomfort you experienced during your Delta flight.”

Sweeney wrote back, saying a $200 voucher was unacceptable. She wanted a full refund for her Delta flight, or at the very least, a refund of the upgrade.

Delta Air Lines wrote back, agreeing to refund her upgrade. But it declined to offer more compensation.

Sweeney appealed that decision. She claims the airline’s flight crew was negligent in handling her problem and rather than trying to following proper procedures (filing an incident report, fumigating the plane she’d arrived on) tried to unload her.

For dramatic effect, she also described her current medical condition. “I am still suffering with the bites as they are now oozing and very uncomfortable,” she wrote.

That prompted the following letter from United States Aviation Underwriters, Delta’s insurance company.

We understand you reported you experienced a rash on your lower body which you believe was caused by insect bites from the plane. We reviewed the pictures and it is apparent that there is some type of skin irritation. However, as of this date, we have not received any reports from other passengers making the same allegations.

If perchance the aircraft was infected, it would not be limited to one seat. In addition the Board of Health would be alerted and the aircraft fumigated.

As I said, as of this date we have not received complaints of insect bites from other passengers traveling on the same flights as you.

Although we sincerely regret that you associate your discomfort with your flight on Delta, it is unclear as to exactly where, how and what you were subjected to, to cause this reaction. Even though we do not view this as a case of liability against our insured, we are prepared to make a goodwill offer of $500 to help defray your medical expenses.

Again, this is strictly a gesture of goodwill and should in no way be misconstrued as an admission of any liability.

Sweeney wants to know if Delta is offering her enough compensation.

I’m troubled that it took the airline several exchanges to take her complaint seriously. I mean, the $200 voucher was a lowball offer. Not refunding the upgrade on her second Delta flight? Come on, guys. But the last response from the insurance company was at least something.

Was it enough? I don’t know if we’ll ever know if her plane was infested by fleas or bedbugs. I have no doubt that her bites are real. I’m not sure if Delta Air Lines can do any more for her, though. Or if it should.

(Photo: Soul Rider .222/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • y_p_w

    The problem with something like this where someone comes down with an illness or condition is how does one prove it unless there’s a pattern of other people with the same condition.  You can get people randomly suing a restaurant for allegations of food poisoning without knowing if that was the one, if it was a home-prepared meal, or perhaps just poorly refrigerated leftovers.  I tend to agree that most businesses shouldn’t admit any responsibility unless there’s immediate proof or a pattern that can be corroborated.

    I still don’t understand why they asked her to move though.  That’s odd.  If they suspect her of carrying something onboard, it’s not necessarily going to stay with her and limit itself to the economy section.  The passenger has to walk along the length of the plane to get to the back.

    As for spraying down a plane, I remember when it was standard operating procedure for some airlines to spray a pesticide just after landing on some international flights.  It was really strange too.  The flight attendants would all do this choreographed thing with spray cans, almost like they were demonstrating how to use the flotation devices.  Each one would have two cans and would walk down the aisles and douse the air with a pesticide mist.  The claim was that whatever it was they were spraying was “considered safe by the World Health Organization”.

  • backprop

    Sorry, sweetie:

    wanted a full refund for her Delta flight, or at the very least, a
    refund of the upgrade….Delta Air Lines wrote back, agreeing to refund her upgrade. ”

    I don’t get it.  She asked for something, and Delta offered it to her.  Game over!  They agreed to your demand, honey.  No use going back to the trough.

  • emanon256

    I think they gave the OP way more than enough, a $200 voucher, a refund of her upgrade, and $500! Wow!

    I completely understand the refund of the upgrade, that should be a given since she moved back to economy. I think that should have been the first offer.

    However, I think it would be hard to prove the bites occurred on the plane. They may have, but they may not have, and I have no clue how she could prove it. Just because she was on 10 hours of Delta itineraries doesn’t mean it didn’t happened at a hotel, or at a chair in the airport, or even a few days before. And how is Delta responsible for the airport terminal? The fact that other people didn’t get bitten, and that there were no other complaints from people in her seat afterwards that makes it sound like it did not happen on the plane.

    I once went to the Dr. when I developed bug bites all over my legs. I was so worried I was going to have to have my house fumigated until the Dr. told me that the type of bug bites I had don’t show up until about 2-3 days after the bites occur. I am not saying I had the same type of bites as the OP, or doubting the op, but it seems almost impossible to prove that the bugs were on the plane and exclusive to her seat only, given her limited exposure time and lack of other incidents.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I think Delta’s “options” offered to her were just a way for them to scam a better seat for a different (possibly oversold situation) customer. I don’t understand why it was okay for her to remain on board if her condition was so bad, but only if she sat in the cheap seats!??!?

    That to me makes me really skeptical of Delta’s business practices. “It’s okay for you to infect the low paying customers!”


    Anyway, I think she has received enough compensation at this point. 

  • emanon256

    I don’t think Delta was trying to say it’s okay to infect the economy class cabin, I think they saw it as a complaint about her seat and her being uncomfortable, and there were probably no other open seats in her class, but there were open seats in economy, so they simply offered to move seats.  I think this was either a miscommunication on Delta’s part or her part.  I really don’t think Delta fully understood that she thought there were bugs in her seat, but that she simply had a medical condition and didn’t like that seat and wanted a new one.  At least that’s how I interpret it.

  • An Even Newer Alan Gore

    The key to evaluating this type of complaint is: Did anyone else on the flight report getting bitten?

  • sirwired

    They are oozing?  The symptoms have lasted several days and got steadily worse?  That doesn’t sound like bug bites to me; sounds like poisonous plant contact (i.e. Poison Ivy), which, unlike bug bites, can easily persist for weeks, cause oozing blisters, severe itching, etc.  I had a bad case a couple of years ago, and I didn’t even start itching for a couple of days.  It then progressed to hard little dots, then dots that oozed, and then blisters that oozed.  Depending on the severity of the contact, the symptoms can take more or less time to appear, and you may not progress through all the stages.

    She may want to see a doctor; I did, he prescribed Prednisone, and the itching stopped in 12 hours (after suffering for a week.)  The blisters took a while to heal, and the side effects of the Prednisone sucked, but the healing started immediately.

    This absolutely was NOT bedbugs.  They are BED bugs; they don’t like light and they don’t like squirming victims.  And while fleas can be itchy, I don’t see them causing this kind of reaction.  (And she certainly wouldn’t have been the only one bit.)

    Lastly, she asked for a refund of the upgrade, and she got it.  Delta did, upon appeal, do exactly what she asked.  What is there to mediate?

  • Raven_Altosk

    But she claims she was bitten on the PREVIOUS flight, not the one to Ireland. Which begs the question, did she tell that flight crew about her problem or just the crew on the connection and why?

  • john4868

    Let me understand this correctly…
    1.    She never saw a bug on any airplane. She just felt bites later and assumed that they were from the flight.
    2.    DL refunded her upgrade plus gave her $700 which is more than she asked for.
    3.    It’s still not enough.
    Sorry but Delta went way above and beyond on this one. I noticed that she never stated that she saw or killed a bug. The bites could have happened at any point (in the airport, in the cab on the way to the airport, on the bus between terminals, etc) and only started to itch on the flight. I might feel differently if she actually saw a bug but she didn’t. Ultimately, DL gave her exactly what she asked for and she’s still not happy. Don’t waste your time Chris. The woman won’t be happy with you either.

  • emanon256

    We definitely need some more info here than.  Why would she want move from Premium to economy on a different plane altogether? 

  • SoBeSparky

    Just where did Ms. Sweeney sleep before she got on her Atlanta flight?  Where was her carry-on bag stored before the trip? Most bedbugs “come home” after luggage was in a hotel room. 

    Further, we do not know where she sat at the airport, or for that matter, in a taxi or shuttle on the way to ATL.

    I am afraid that highly mobile bugs cannot be traced to a specific site without much further investigation.  Some parasites can be picked up on upholstery in many public places and cause a lot of skin irritation.

  • etetet

    This happened to my sister one time on I think a United flight.  She had bites on her stomache and we were pretty sure they were flea bites.  Down grading her was rediculous! 

  • FoxtrotUnicorn

    OMG – what did she expect them to do?!?!?  Fumigate the plane right then and there?

    And moving her was completely reasonable if she was complaining that her seat had bugs.

  • RobynJacqueline

    She asked for a a refund on the value of her upgraded seat and she got that. Case closed.

  • Cathy_Disqus

    This happened to me on a Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego a few years ago. It was a night flight that got in late and I slept most of the way and didn’t even realize I’d been bitten multiple times on feet and calves until the next morning. These were flea bites, not poison ivy. I know the difference. And yes, they itched and swelled and oozed. I’m allergic to cats, and this is what happens if I get bitten by fleas from a cat. I’ve always assumed there was one under that seat on the flight before me.

    My colleagues who shared my row didn’t get bitten or didn’t notice any bites. They aren’t allergic to cats though, and they were wearing shoes and socks while I was wearing sandals.

    I did not ask Delta for compensation. I’ve flown hundreds of times and never had this happen before or since, so I consider it one of the small risks of flying, but I do think the airlines ought to spray for fleas and vacuum the floor and seats in the area where an animal was kept before another passenger uses it. They charge extra for carrying pets on board, and that should cover the expense.

  • pauletteb

    If no other passengers on that flight have filed complaints, it’s hard to believe that Ms. Sweeney’s bites were caused by an “infested” plane. Did she stay in a hotel before her flight? Did she come into contact with people at the airport? (Of course she did!) Delta didn’t do its other passengers a favor by allowing her to remain on the flight as a downgrade. Infections/infestations are even more transferable in the uber-close quarters of coach!

  • emanon256

    I thought she chose to be downgraded.

  • flip44

    Many of the comments here are right on. Where did she sleep the night before, home or a hotel.  I think Sweeney’s claim is bogus. If it is a scam, she really made out well and Delta turned over backwards to appease her…financially, rather than extended bad publicity. 
    Yes, where is the evidence? Is she saying on the flite these bugs crawled up her legs? Bed bugs like warm hidden isolated places. Altho warm blood is an attraction. Delta was wise to isolate her. However, I wonder if they sold that same seat later on? Doubtful.
    Of course anything can happen, no matter how farfetched. Recently there was a report, substantiated, of maggots in the overhead baggage compartment. Did someone stash their pet dog or cat and forget them?
    Yes, other causes such as poison ivy or some previous allergy that Swenney had is more plausible. There are too many negative aspects to this claim that bothers me.
    However, this is a “Heads Up” to shake out our clothes and wipe down our luggage as soon as we depart a plane. 

  • Ann Elsen

    She specifically asked them to at least refund her upgrade and when they did, she turned it down? Come on, lady. I’m sorry that she had some sort of insect bites that she claimed were from her flight, but I find it very hard to believe that nobody else complained if that was indeed the case. I think that Delta was more than generous in offering her $500 as a good will gesture.

  • bc

    “Sweeney wrote back, saying a $200 voucher was unacceptable. She wanted a full refund for her Delta flight, or at the very least, a refund of the upgrade.”

    Really? Really?? Perhaps they should also reimburse your cab fare to and from the airport. Oh, what about the coffee you had at the airport, should they refund that too? 

    You were delivered to your destination, not in the seat you were promised and they offered you $200 voucher, that seems more than fair to me. 

  • Chris Johnson

    I think they offered her enough compensation, but it irritates me to no end that the insurance company basically said, on behalf of Delta, “Well, nobody else complained.”  That is almost as obnoxious as it gets and is like saying that what you have to say doesn’t matter.  Delta should make a point to say that the insurance company does not speak for them – I would hope they don’t have the same philosophy.

  • emanon256

    That’s not obnoxious, that’s legally covering themselves and Delta as their client and should be stated.  It means they are a good insurance company, who is protecting their client as they should be.
    I am sure the will also require her to sign a release stating that the $500 settlement is offered only as a compromise for a disputed claim and constitutes no admission of liability, and releases Delta all liability. 
    I am willing to bet it also states that the facts of this case and the settlement amount is confidential and the OP agrees not to release any such facts to any person (which would include Chris).  By giving Chris these details, if in fact she has signed such a settlement to get the additional $500, it means they can now go after her to get it back because she violated the terms of the settlement.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I have worked in outdoor-related settings for much of the past 15 years and have either been bitten by or known someone else bitten by just about everything possible.  Dog tick bites don’t bother me; a co-worker of mine has to have a steroid shot to keep her from scratching herself raw.  On the other hand, chigger and flea bites drive me insane. 
    Just because no one else reported bug bites or itching doesn’t mean that Ms. Sweeney didn’t have them.  She may be more allergic to certain insects, she may have been dressed differently, the problem may have been very localized.
    It’s also possible that Ms. Sweeney was exposed to something *before* she got on that first flight, and it only manifested itself while she was sitting quietly.  Poison ivy and chiggers come to mind with delayed onset of symptoms. 
    I don’t know, and I suspect that a visit to a doctor would have provided more information and possibly supporting documentation for Ms. Sweeney.  Perhaps that detail was omitted in the interest of brevity when posting this case?

  • Kotch11

    I really think she was over-compensated.  There is no way of knowing when and where she got the bites, and I doubt they would have shown up immediately.  I think she’s just trying to bling-bling let that cash register ring.
    Also, if the bites are still “oozing” sounds like she didn’t even see a doctor

  • bedbugchaser

    Frank the BedBug Chaser and I want you to look at this chart for yourself  and see why exterminators using our equipment can heat your house faster than those using other brands. This is why exterminators using our Avtron heaters can charge less money per sq ft than those using Brand “X” – time is money and we save you time! Without burning your house down!!

  • Martha Stewardess

    I don’t get it. Why would she be downgraded? Why would she allow herself to be downgraded? None of that makes sense.

  • Aly

    Thank you! I’ve experienced the same on my two flights with Delta in the last four weeks. One to Chicago from San Diego and another to New York. The bites on my body still remain and I have pictures to prove along with the doctors reports. I’ve gone to the doctor to find a solution for the irritating pain and itching of the bites. My bites are on the neck, upper shoulders, lower legs and wrists. Now I know I’m not the only one who’ve experienced this, besides one more person (my family member) who flew Delta as well from San Diego, but a day after me, who reported the same conditions to me.

  • Aly

    It is not essential that you will develop the symptoms of bed bug bite immediately after the bite. In some cases, the symptoms develop days after the bite or may not even develop. This makes the diagnosis even harder. However, some people develop more severe symptoms of itching and swelling.

  • Monica Kennedy

    This was enough. As it states in the article, she asked for a refund of her downgraded seat, and Delta gave her that. Yet she still declined it and appealed. If that wasn’t good enough, why ask for it in the first place? Then she received another $500 from Delta’s insurance in “goodwill”. That seems fair for something that can in no way be traced back to the flight.

  • besseya

    As an old biologist who’s seen a bunch of misdiagnosed “bug bites”, “spider bites”, etc, I’d say Delta was being extremely generous with her.  And no, I’m not normally on the side of an airline. 

    What she’s describing sounds like a whole lot like the beginnings of a staphylococcal skin infection — and those do tend to ooze for weeks to months. Or folliculitis:

    The choices given on the flight to Ireland sound a little random, though… I’m guessing miscommunication. Or at least I hope so!

  • Hannah Marie

    They still do this! We were on a flight from DC to Cape Town that stopped and unloaded/loaded in Senegal just last year. We were all apprehensive of the spray cans but we were told to suck it up or get out… we just held our breath and laughed about it.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Was she groped by a TSA agent who didn’t change his/her gloves?

  • ginnyo53

    I feel that would be prudent for Delta to investigate the clients allegations regarding bedbugs or fleas.  Just because no other passenger hadn’t complained is not a good enough reason to ignore the potential problem.  I was recently involved in a similar situation and trust me, if it is a bedbug issue you will find out real soon.  Mananment is reluctant to acknowledge bedbugs because of the stigma attached to them.  Employees or customers have to actually catch the little critters to prove, yes in deed we do have a problem.  If you look at the bedbug registry you will find that bedbugs are everywhere.  There should be protocols in place and the protocols should be followed in the event that bedbugs become an issue.  Afterr my experience I would be sure to take care of the problem as soon as possible.  Delta putting their head in the sand will not take care of the problem, as they will find out.



  • eyeluv2shop90

    Well your not alone, I was bitten on a Delta flight in Jan 2012 ( not long after yours) and I was bitten by a brown recluse and had 3 major operations.  I was bitten about half way through my international flight but didn’t realize it was a spider at that time.  I told the attendant who informed me it was probably a mosquito.  By the time the plane was getting ready to land I told her again that I didn’t think it was a mosquito she insisted it probably was.  By the time I got home and finished unpacking I could hardly walk.  There was an elderly man behind me that also fell on the floor (passed out) and neither he or I filled out and incident report.  I filed a complaint the next day or maybe even that night–3 weeks later and many  phone calls and complaints and send a letter to the CEO I finally received an “were very sorry–and we look forward to sering you in the furture”  I was notified by the insurance carrier for Delta that they are NOT covered for medical and there was nothing they could do for me.  I was told I probably brought it on their plane—but I replied I was on a connecting DELTA flight and I was also in the DELTA lounge –I didn’t have a bag on the floor like they suggested –and they asked if I was in my assigned seat–YES.  I was asked what type of clothing was I wearing—to which I replied–would the spider know the difference?  GIVE it up—they are an billion dollar AMERICAN company who does not care about looking out for the people who are mis-treated or harmed on their flights and they sure as hell are not worried about bad press because I couldn’t even get the news media to respond to me.  I wish you the best of luck but think it is an UP HILL BATTLE

  • donlukman

    hello to airline bug i want some of the connection to bug as soon am i live in west Africa,Ghana here