By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 10/16/2007 1:02:16 PM ET 2007-10-16T17:02:16

Insects are a fact of life, and while they aren't normally a factor in the airline industry, every once in a while they manage to stow away on an airplane. Maybe you've seen some or — more likely — maybe you've seen a flight crew spray down the cabin with insecticide.

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Are the insects dangerous? Sometimes.

Are the insecticides dangerous? Ah, that's a better question, but before I answer it, let me tell you my 10 favorite stories about bugs on airplanes, gathered from 20 years of flying as a flight attendant and listening to other flight attendants' stories.

1. Roach coach. I loved flying for Pan Am, but toward the end, maintenance began to slip and the cockroaches started to take over (no, I don't mean the senior management). On one flight from Paris to New York, the crew couldn't open a single container without several cockroaches falling out. We had to cancel the meal service and one crew member did a tap dance in the rear galley, killing 22 cockroaches — an in-flight record.

2. Honey, take cover. A flight from South America was canceled when the air vents were found to house hundreds of stowaway bumblebees. The problem only became evident when the pilots turned on the air and the flight attendants had to flee to the terminal building.

3. Buzz off. I once had to write up a report on a case after I witnessed a passenger swatting a wasp. The wasp landed in the lap of another passenger and stung him three times. That passenger was allergic to wasp stings and had to be rushed to a hospital.

4. Flea market. An airline received many complaints of flea infestation from passengers and crew members who reported a higher-than-normal incidence of onboard itching. They were awarded bonus frequent-flier points for the inconvenience (the passengers, not the fleas).

5. Don't be so crabby. A passenger brought a lawsuit against an airline, saying she had contracted a case of crabs during a nine-hour flight on one of its airplanes. The case was dismissed because it was difficult to prove exactly where she had picked up her little companions. Too bad crabs don't carry passports.

6. Chicago swarm. Every 17 years, swarms of cicadas come out from underground and wreak havoc for a short period of time. Though rather ugly and loud, the cicadas are harmless, but the sheer numbers of them caused trouble at Chicago's O'Hare airport a few years back. Stepping out onto the tarmac to board an express flight was a crunchy experience, and my wife, who is a pilot, reports that her windshields were covered with bugs by the end of the take-off roll. After landing, she says, the outside of the airplane looked like a pizza with everything on it.

7. Ants in your pants. Several passengers were treated for fire-ant bites after flying on a international flight that was carrying infested cargo. The airplane had to be taken off-line for a week and fumigated, and the total estimated cost of the mishap was $1.2 million.

8. Patriotic duty. On a military charter during the first Gulf War, the crew was told halfway through the flight that the troops onboard were reporting a high incidence of head lice. When we were presented with lice kits upon arrival, we realized that the airline had known about the situation all along, but decided not to tell us about it until we — and the lice — were airborne. All in the line of duty.

9. Little Miss Muffet. A rare and expensive spider that was being transported for a convention escaped its container in flight. A determined passenger administered a firm newspaper swat, and the $10,000 spider did not make his convention in one piece.

10. Ticked off. On a flight to London, my wife and I sat behind a man who seemed to have a tick on his neck just below his hairline. We didn't say anything in case we were mistaken. I mean, what if it was a mole? But it bugged me the whole flight and I know I would have wanted to be told. What would you have done?

Now, about those pesticides.

Have you ever seen flight attendants walk down the aisles spraying pesticides into the air vents? This practice has mostly been discontinued, but many countries used to require it as a way of keeping foreign bugs from landing on their soil. The only countries that still require in-flight spraying are Grenada, India, Kiribati, Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay. Another six countries — Australia, Barbados, Fiji, Jamaica, New Zealand and Panama — require the use of "residual" pesticides, i.e., pesticides that are swabbed or sprayed onto the surfaces of the cabin before the flight and then allowed to dry. Those are the six countries I know of, but there may be more. But those are just the legal requirements. The fact is, many airlines routinely spray all of their airplanes as a matter of company policy.

Residual pesticides are usually applied shortly before the crew and passengers board the airplane. The solution most commonly used contains 2 percent permethrin, a chemical that kills insects by paralyzing their nervous systems. Human babies and children are said to be more sensitive to the effects of this chemical than adults. Many believe that pesticides cause even greater harm on airplanes, where up to 50 percent of the cabin air is recycled. Most pesticides break down slowly in the enclosed, poorly ventilated aircraft. Plus, insects rapidly develop a resistance to pesticides.

The airlines are not required to inform passengers of flight sprays when they purchase their tickets, and there is no control over how much pesticide is applied on the aircraft. Overspraying is not unheard of. Crews and passengers have reported sinus problems, swollen and itchy eyes, coughs, difficulty breathing, sore throats, skin rashes, severe headaches and fatigue, as well as heightened sensitivity to other chemicals. Some crew members have medical documentation of reactions consistent with nerve gas exposure, such as blood, optic nerve and nervous system abnormalities. If you routinely feel poorly after landing, this could be why.

If you are concerned, what can you do?

* Ask questions. Contact the airline to find out if pesticides will be sprayed on your flight, or if you will be boarding a "residually sprayed" craft. The customer service agent might not know the answer, but might transfer you to somebody who does. If the airlines receive enough inquiries about pesticides, they might try harder to get consumers the correct information.

* Look it up. The U.S. Department of Transportation Web site lists countries that require spraying and the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network has this factsheet on permethrin.

* Avoid the spray. If flight attendants are required to spray a pesticide in flight they will usually make an announcement 10 minutes beforehand. If you are sensitive, cover your nose and mouth with a wet paper towel and point your air vent to the side of your face.

* Medicate. Cold and allergy products have been deemed effective in treating some of the effects brought on by residual spraying.

Yes, pesticides can keep insects from taking up residence on an airplane, but at what cost to the health of the passengers and flight crews? Safer methods are being tested, such as having the cleaning crews monitor insect activity using sticky traps or pheromone traps. Affected planes can be treated in a number of inexpensive ways that don't involve volatile materials, for example by caulking cracks, setting traps, or using boric acid gels or paste in a bait station. Chemically treated mosquito netting and blowers could also be used in the Jetways.

I always find it comical to watch a polished passenger come completely undone when a bee or a spider draws near. It's as if the element of surprise erases any decorum, and by the time the bug has fled the scene, the suave gentleman looks like a convertible caught in a windstorm. But imagine how the insect must feel. I'm sure that bug is more surprised to be in an airplane than anyone.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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