Airline apologizes after family bitten by bed bugs during 9-hour flight
An airline is apologizing to a B.C. family for a bed bug encounter that occurred on a nine-hour flight to the U.K.
Heather Szilagyi, her fiancé, Eric Neilson and her daughter Molly were on a red-eye to London from Vancouver when they first noticed the pests.
The New Westminster resident said she saw a small brown bug crawl out from behind the TV screen on the seat in front of her.
"I wanted to grab it but they're quick, and it crawled back inside, behind the screen," Szilagyi told CTV News Wednesday.
She saw another, larger bug when they got their food, and a few more throughout the night.
Szilagyi worked in hotels most of her life, she said, so she knew what the bugs were as soon as she saw them. While she'd never seen them on a plane before, she said she knew "these things just happen."
So she discreetly alerted the flight attendants to the tiny stowaways. Airline staff apologized, but did not seem surprised by the sightings, she said.
With nothing more they could do, the trio settled down for the night.
"It was nine hours of knowing that I was probably going to get bit but not being sure, but there wasn't really anything I could do about it. I was surprised I was able to relax but, what can you do?"
Having encountered the bugs before, Szilagyi knew to disinfect their belongings when they reached their destination, to prevent them from spreading further.
"They tag on to your luggage," she said, explaining they'd put everything in plastic bags and left what they could outside.
Then they waited, both for the bites to show up (which can take up to two days) and to be able to speak to someone at the airline.
Molly was "just covered, all over" in bites, Szilagyi said. She herself had bites along her hands, waistline, neck and other areas, some of which became infected. Neilson was bitten too, but didn't react as badly as the mother and daughter.
But although the encounter was unpleasant, the presence of the tiny pests wasn't what bothered them the most.
"What we're upset about is that trying to get ahold of British Airways to make sure that we don't get the same airplane back was impossible," Szilagyi said.
She said their customer service line is only open four hours a day, and the hours are in a different time zone. When she tried to call, a recorded message said the line was too busy and her call was dropped, she said.
"I had to find a loophole, doing that thing where you just hit '0' over and over and over again, and we finally got somebody."
Szilagyi said she doesn't feel like she was asking too much. The tickets were purchased by Neilson's mother, so the family could attend his grandmother's funeral. The family didn’t ask for a refund. They just wanted to know that the plane would be cleaned, and to see if they could switch to a partner airline for their return flight.
Szilagyi and Neilson said what was frustrating was that the supervisor and service representative seemed like they wanted to help but could not.
"Eric finally told them we're going to have to go to social media, and I don't want to do that but we did anyways," Szilagyi said.
They received some backlash by posting their story online, she said, including from some who accused her of lying.
"It's horrible for me because all these people think that we're just wanting attention and wanting to sue a company, but this is not what I want to be known for. I don't want to be 'bed bug girl,’'" she said.
A post on Twitter received some attention from the airline, and they heard from a representative a couple days later. She said they arranged for the couple and Molly to fly first class on the way home, and there were no bugs on that flight.
Ultimately, they hope that the airline evaluates how it cleans its planes following bed bug sightings, she said, and that they expand their customer service to operate 24 hours a day.
"I'm not asking for any money, I'm not asking for anything," she said.
"It was really, really hard on us just spending all of our time on the phone and arguing with people and knowing that they wanted to help us but weren't allowed."
In a statement, the airline said it's been in touch with the family.
"We have been in touch with our customer to apologize and investigate further," a representative said.
"British Airways operates more than 280,000 flights every year, and reports of bed bugs onboard are extremely rare. Nevertheless, we are vigilant and continually monitor our aircraft."
The company said the presence of bed bugs is an issue faced by hotels and airlines around the world.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber