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British Airways apologizes after passengers say bedbug-infested flight left them ‘covered in bites’

By: Avi Selk, The Washington Post
October 22, 2017 Updated: October 22, 2017 at 4:57 pm
Caption +
In this Wednesday, March 30, 2011 file photo, a bed bug is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington. A government study counted one death and 80 illnesses linked to bedbug-targeting insecticides used from 2008 through 2010. Many were do-it-yourselfers who misused the chemicals or used the wrong product. Most of the cases were in New York City, the apparent epicenter of a recent U.S. bedbug comeback. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

An hour into an overnight flight to London, Heather Szilagyi recalls, the first bug crawled out of her in-seat TV.

“It was just the one, at the time,” she said.

So she rang the bell and informed a flight attendant — quietly, lest she alarm her 7-year-old daughter or the passenger into whose seat back the thing had disappeared — that British Airways Flight 84 might have a bedbug problem.

“The flight attendant said, ‘We don’t have anywhere to move you. I’m really sorry,’ ” Szilagyi said.

Now British Airways says it’s sorry, too. The airline apologized in a statement to CTV News after Szilagyi, her daughter and at least one other passenger reported walking off the nine-hour flight from Vancouver covered in red welts.

Szilagyi used to clean hotel rooms, she said, and so knows a bedbug when she sees one. She and daughter Molly are allergic to them, but Szilagyi tried to stay optimistic on the Oct. 10 flight.

As the cabin lights dimmed and Molly drifted off to sleep, Szilagyi tried to convince herself that the bedbug that crawled out of her TV was a random stray — perhaps left there by some unfortunate passenger before her.

Likewise, when she looked down from her dinner tray a bit later, she said, she hoped it was just a flax seed that lay in her lap.

But seeds don’t move.

“This one I grabbed and squished in Kleenex,” Szilagyi said. Then she rang the bell again.

The flight attendant thanked her and took the insect away as if it were just a discarded coffee cup, she recalled. Then Szilagyi spotted two more bugs and debated in whispers with her fiance whether to risk a panic by alerting the other passengers.

“I knew it was a real infestation,” she said. “But we didn’t want to ruin someone else’s trip, and there’s nothing they could do anyway.”

So Szilagyi drank two glasses of wine, closed her eyes and tried her best to accept the inevitable.

Come daylight and the end of the flight, she said, she saw bites on Molly's thighs. The family had traveled to Europe for a funeral but spent their first night on the continent throwing pillows in a hotel dishwasher and soaking their clothes in scalding water.

“The next morning, me and Molly were just covered in bites,” Szilagyi said.

Over the next week, she said, her daughter’s welts became infected and bled. Szilagyi said she and her fiance spent much of the trip on hold with British Airways, in a fruitless effort to ensure they didn’t share the flight home with yet more bedbugs.

The couple finally started posting proof of their suffering on Twitter, which resulted in British tabloid headlines such as: “JUST PLANE AWFUL: Furious mum slams British Airways after daughter, 7, was ravaged by BED BUGS and left bleeding on flight.”

“How embarrassing is that, to be known for this?” Szilagyi said. But her fury had some effect.

She said British Airways representatives met her family at the airport as they left London. They got a promise to fumigate better and a free seat upgrade — neither quite guarantees against bedbugs.

“It doesn’t matter what class you’re in, you’re still going to get bugs,” Szilagyi noted. But the flight back to Vancouver turned out insect-free, as far as she knows, and the carrier has since been conciliatory.

“We have been in touch with our customer to apologize and investigate further,” the airline wrote in a statement to CTV News last week. “British Airways operates more than 280,000 flights every year, and reports of bed bugs onboard are extremely rare.”

Not rare enough for some. The airline had at least one bedbug incident last year, which resulted in a plane being pulled from service.

And on Friday, another passenger on Szilagyi’s flight told Global News that he left the plane with bites across his back and has since thrown out his clothes.

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