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Bed Bugs on Planes

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by Panther Pest Control Team
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It has already been established as general knowledge that bed bugs, in spite their name, are not only limited to occupying beds. There are tons of informative articles warning people of these notorious hitchhiking pests, which can hop on your luggage, clothes and even live inside your computer keyboard. These frightening facts lead to even more frightening consequences – bed bugs in cars, retail stores, and the worst scenario of all – on planes.


Image by: Bill Damon

Travelling on planes is an exhausting, overwhelming and stressful experience – enhanced security checks, luggage restrictions on liquids and electronics, to top it all, even when you finally get seated and comfortable, parasites attack. What you actually leave the airport with can vary from a mild skin irritation to a bad allergic reaction.

At the 8th International Conference on Urban Pests (ICUP) held in Zurich from 21-23 of July 2014, Adam Juson from Surrey-based Merlin Environmental, presented the issue of bed bugs of any size being frequently found in aircraft seating. Not that any airline has admitted such a problem. Juson explained how these bed bug infestations have the potential to grow into economic disasters for airlines. As the worst case scenario of flying bed bugs has caused an aircraft to be landed, this leads to huge unnecessary costs.

Merlin Environmental conducted a three year study, observing over 100 inspections of infected planes. The research covered various air carriers, aircraft models and types of seats. Objects of the study differentiated from single seats and insects to full blown infestations in whole cabins. One of the conclusions of this study was that companies who adopted a reactive approach were consequential for 80% less seats infested and 70% less overall infestation. Of most importance were the detection and eradication methods evaluated by the research. Learn more about bed bugs from our Bed bugs facts and myths post.

However, many cases of air line companies that refuse to take measure even after customer complaints have been documented. For instance, back 2011 when Daily Mail published a story about British Airways being forced to fumigate two planes, only after a business class passenger, Zane Selkirk, became so outraged by the lack of responsibility that she created a website containing photos of her bite-covered body parts. Only after the story went viral BA conducted a treatment.

Detection Methods

The tortuous architecture of air planes, plus the limited time due to commercial flight schedules, does not allow many options for insect detection systems. Still, a wide range of methods were implemented: human inspection, refuge monitors, lure-based monitors, electronic air sampling detectors and scent detection dogs.

Before each test, a foundational hand search by an experienced pest technician was carried out in order to confirm the actual presence of bed bugs. Each detection system was then judged by its percentage of accuracy on finding known infestations, numbers of false detections and the acceptability of the detection method to the airlines.

The most accurate monitoring system turned out to be scent detection dogs by 95.5% of known infested seats detected (and a tiny bit of false positives), followed by lure monitors drastically dropping to 62.5% detection. The electronic detector did not bad, about 59.4% detection, but a 26.2% false positive count. The lure-based monitors were problematic due to safety standards, thus not being a suitable option for aircrafts.

Eradication Methods

To analyze the efficiency of convenient eradication methods, a combination of scent dogs and human inspection was used to report infestation levels prior to treatment and 28 days after. The methods reviewed were methyl bromide fumigation by a specialist in an aircraft company, Ficam W, chemical application of two approved for use in planes products and two types of heat treatments – a closed system and a forced air system.

The outcome showed that methyl bromide fumigation was the only treatment able to achieve 100% control. Disappointing were the results of both chemical treatments, probably stemming from the complex interior of aircraft seating, which restricts the professional to properly apply pesticides. Another point on pesticides is their residual value.

Close score to that of the methyl bromide fumigation was achieved by heat treatment. Although still not 100% effective it has many supporters in the aviation industry, because it has no harmful effects on the aircrafts. However, in once closed system treatment, overheating of the environment resulted in damage of plastic components in seating items and cabin side walls. Forced air treatment has great potential.

In conclusion, Adam Juson reported: “Early detection is vital particularly in view of the reduced efficacy of eradication systems.” In addition, few parts of airline companies’ duty would be to improve seating designs which would be in compliance with the problem to reduce rates of infestations; and awareness of passenger boarding behaviour.