B.C. woman plagued by bedbugs on airplane not surprising, says expert

Heather Szilagyi was on a British Airways flight when she noticed bedbugs crawling out of the seat

Seven-year-old Molly Reid is seen on a British Airways flight on October 10, in this handout photo. (Ho/The Canadian Press, Heather Szilagyi)

A B.C. woman plagued by bedbugs on a nine-hour flight to London is a victim of the explosive growth in the critters globally, but travellers shouldn’t worry they’ll become a common feature on planes, says an entomologist.

Heather Szilagyi was on a British Airways flight with her seven-year-old daughter and fiancee Eric Neilson on Oct. 10 when she said they noticed what appeared to be bedbugs crawling out of the seat in front of them.

She said the flight attendants couldn’t move them because there were no other available seats on the plane. After landing, Szilagyi discovered they were covered in bites.

“To actually see them pouring out of the back of the TV on the seat, that was actually really gross,” she said. “Once we arrived at our Airbnb … we put everything through the washing machine on the hottest heat we could, put everything in plastic bags, sanitized everything that we could.”

Murray Isman, a University of British Columbia professor of entomology and toxicology, said with the increase in personal travel and the spread of the insect globally, it’s not surprising bedbugs are finding their way onto commercial aircraft.

“One of the ways bedbugs travel is in hand luggage and personal luggage,” said Isman, who also works with a company that develops bedbug repellents. “Where there is a lot of movement of people in and out, sooner or later someone is going to transfer these things in something they’re carrying, and this is how they get spread from hotel to hotel to hotel and this is how people bring them home.”

Changes in local insecticide use and climate change are other factors contributing to the spread of bedbugs, he said.

But travellers shouldn’t be too worried there will be more incidents of bedbugs biting passengers on planes, Isman added.

“If you think about the normal situation which is someone sleeping in a hotel bed or a bed at home, the bedbugs don’t like a lot of disturbance or movement. They like it quiet, dark,” he said, adding the critters would first have to get out of luggage and onto a plane’s chairs and upholstery to even reach people.

Szilagyi took to Twitter to share photos of her daughter’s bites after she said her calls to British Airways failed to guarantee they would not be on the same plane.

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“What we both would have been satisfied with was if it was possible to just have us on a partner line, not to fly back with British Airways,” she said, having been left unsettled by the experience.

In a statement, British Airways spokeswoman Caroline Niven said the airline has been in touch with the customer to apologize and will investigate the incident further.

“British Airways operates more than 280,000 flights every year, and reports of bedbugs onboard are extremely rare. Nevertheless, we are vigilant and continually monitor our aircraft. The presence of bedbugs is an issue faced occasionally by hotels and airlines all over the world,” the statement said.

Niven added that any reports like Szilagyi’s are taken seriously, and the aircraft would be subject to any checks and treatment necessary.

A statement from the Vancouver Airport Authority said it took immediate steps when learning about the incident to work with its cleaning and pest control partners to ensure the airport remains clean and sterile.

Isman said exterminating the bugs is the best option for airlines since treating people and luggage before they get on an aircraft isn’t feasible.

With travellers increasingly aware of the problem, he said more people are at least taking preventive measures by carrying insecticides or repellents to hotels to reduce the spread.

Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press

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