Passengers need to alert a flight attendant, who then must address issues with other passengers.
Passengers need to alert a flight attendant, who then must address issues with other passengers. (Neil Nakahodo/The Kansas City Star/MCT)

Q My husband and I fly regularly on American Airlines to visit ailing parents in Austin, Texas. Most of our flights have been positive experiences, but a recent one was not. The man in Seat 29D had horrendous body odor. Unfortunately, we were in 29E and 29F. For the next three hours, my husband diverted the air vent back to the cause. What rights do we have as paying customers?

A "Airlines handle these issues on a case-by-case basis, but if passengers are disruptive to others they may be asked to fly at another time," said Victoria Day of Airlines for America, formerly the Air Transport Association, a trade group for U.S. carriers.

American Airlines "has what we call a 'customer acceptance' policy that outlines numerous reasons for not accepting a passenger for travel on one of our flights," said Mary Frances Fagan, an American representative. One of those reasons, she says, is listed on American's website: having "an offensive odor not caused by a disability or illness."

It's not up to passengers to mediate or resolve the issue, but they do need to speak to a flight attendant, who then must address it. But this is truly a cause for inner turmoil. Keep quiet, and you'll be miserable. Speak up, and you'll be guilt-ridden. And if the odor is the result of an illness or disability, you may be stuck.

What's a traveler to do? Here are ideas from frequent fliers:

  • Frank Scafidi, director, public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, recommends Vicks VapoRub. "When I was a Los Angeles deputy sheriff, I carried a jar of that stuff in my patrol gear. Used it many times dealing with dead bodies that can get pretty rank in the heat of summer. Slap a little Vicks under the nostrils, and it's bearable. If it works on a stiff, it'll work on anything." Tiger Balm muscle ointment has the same effect. (Whichever you use, remember that you cannot carry more than 3 ounces through airport security.)

  • Can't stand the smell of menthol? Consider what I call the Starbucks solution, courtesy of Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications Group of New Jersey. "I was sitting in business on United and the guy next to me stunk. ... I asked the flight attendant for a bag of coffee because I had seen other flight attendants use it as air freshener by attaching it to the coat hanger in the bathroom. I kept this bag of coffee up to my nose ... throughout the flight, even putting the blanket over my head with the bag next to my nose when I fell asleep."

  • If you're not a coffee drinker, April Masini, who distributes advice at AskApril.com, recommends products called No Cooties (www.nocooties.net) and Aroma Plane Defense (click "Inhalations" at www.aromafloria.com).

  • Traci Coulter, founder of TCOPR, a public relations agency, offers a variation: "I dab some perfume on my wrist from my travel-size roll-on, pop an Ambien and go to sleep."

    Today's column comes from Catharine Hamm of the Los Angeles Times.