Too sick to fly: Why sick passengers don’t stay home

Published on: October 15, 2013 | Last Updated on July 9, 2016


Have you ever been seated next to someone too sick to fly?

Have you ever been seated next to someone who appeared to be too sick to fly? (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

Airline policies, flight cancellation fees, and complacency among both airline passengers and personnel are among the many factors that encourage people to fly sick.

An online survey sponsored by the National Foundation for 
Infectious Diseases found that two-thirds of Americans go
 about business as usual with the flu. Close to half of those
 surveyed (45 percent) admit they would board a plane with
 symptoms of influenza to go on vacations. Forty percent of business travelers would fly with the flu.

Here are a few reasons why air passengers who are too sick to fly end up sitting next to you: 

1- Passengers are often self-centered. 

The statistics above show that a good proportion of airline passengers elect to fly sick whether it’s for business or pleasure.

“I think people are selfish. It is all about their schedule, their costs, and they forget their own misery or risks to those around them,” says one fight attendant who didn’t want me use her name.

2- Airlines are loath to kick sick passengers off planes for financial reasons

While carriers have the right to deny boarding to a sick passenger, they rarely exercise that option. “There is little incentive for airline personnel to go the extra mile and deny boarding for a sick passenger as that would create an empty seat and lost revenue,” says Alicia Jao, vice-president of travel media for

3- The outward symptoms of communicable diseases aren’t always apparent

Understandably, airline personnel can’t always discern whether someone has symptoms of a common cold or of a more serious and contagious respiratory disorder, such as pneumonia or influenza, or even chicken pox (which can look like acne). Even when gate employees or flight attendants have suspicions, they may turn their heads because they really can’t be sure.

During a pandemic or public health crisis, there is usually a high state of vigilance, but attitudes towards flying sick generally slacken and become more relaxed afterwards.

“We heard about numerous cases of feverish-looking people being told to travel another day during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of

Since then, when was the last time you saw a fellow passenger confronted by airline personnel and asked to leave a plane for flying sick since then?

4- Overly restrictive airline policies encourage passengers to fly while sick

“With some airlines, it’s the policies themselves that motivate people to fly when they’re sick,” says Andrew Schrage, co-founder of

“U.S. Airways offers no medical waivers to assist passengers who are too sick to fly. Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, treats the matter on an individual basis,” he adds.

“Even when waivers do exist, airlines typically require proof of hospitalization to have change fees waived,” says Jao of When children fall ill, these waivers aren’t likely to apply to parents or siblings.

5- Exorbitant fees for flight cancellations encourage passengers to fly sick

Flight cancellation fees can be punishing. Moreover, given the scarcity of seats on some routes, a replacement flight may be expensive, hard to rebook, or non-existent.

“This encourages many people to fly despite being ill,” says Schrage of “Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge these [cancellation] fees, but Delta, American and United all charge $150 per ticket to cancel or rebook,” he adds.

Precautions travelers can take to protect themselves

Given all the perverse incentives for flying sick, what can a traveler do to protect him/herself?

  • At least two weeks before you travel, make sure your vaccinations (e.g. flu, pneumonia) are up-to-date.
  • Consider trip cancellation insurance but assess the cost and read the small print. “Trip cancellation will reimburse travelers up to 100% of trip costs if they are ill. Cancellation due to sickness is always a covered reason, as long as travelers provide documentation from a doctor which states they were unfit for travel,” says Jessica Bell, a spokesperson for

“If a traveler is already ill and they know they will have to cancel their trip, it is too late to buy trip cancellation insurance,” says Steve Dasseos, president of “It’s like wanting to buy fire insurance when your house is on fire.”

  • If you think you may have been exposed to a bug that will render you too sick to fly, check out specific airline waiver policies before you select a carrier, or consider purchasing an unrestricted, totally refundable ticket (These may be unaffordable but you sometimes snag them using frequent flyer miles).
  • Reconsider your decision to fly. If you know you have a highly contagious illness like pneumonia or the 
flu, be sensitive to the possible effects on other passengers who may be young, aged, or immunocompromised. Also, think about how ill and uncomfortable you may begin to feel during the flight.
  • If you think the person next to you looks too ill to fly, ask the flight attendant to change your seat. When seats are available, airline personnel will usually try to honor your request. If no other seats are available and you’re stuck next to someone who seems sick, limit conversation and try to face away from the individual.

Have you ever sat beside someone who seemed too sick to fly? What did you do?

Also see: How to avoid catching a cold next time you fly

  • Reply
    October 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

    This is really a problem and for so many reasons that you list. Maybe we all need to carry portable masks…or perhaps they should be standard fare, along with vomit bags. Short of that happening, I think that if you are caught sitting near someone who is sick and you can’t change your seat, you need to make sure to wash, wash, wash your hands and bring along some antibacterial wipes. And do a lot of positive self-talk (“I won’t get sick…I won’t…I won’t…”)

  • Reply
    Dr. Cacinda Maloney
    October 18, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Hey! Great article! I don’t know about you, but there is no way I am taking one of those flu shots you mention though! They can do more to harm your immune system than good, IMHO. I do try to avoid all hacking passengers though!

  • Reply
    October 18, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Unless people buy insurance or fly with a carrier like Southwest which allows credits for cancelled flights- most can’t afford not to fly sick. I wear a personal ionizer that cleans the air I breathe on planes. I’ve found it makes a difference in terms of catching thinks. Airlines can mitigate the problem by putting in hepa-filters but the retro-fit is big $$$$.

  • Reply
    Elizabeth Rose
    October 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I’ve really cut back my air travel and here’s one of the reasons!

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    October 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Would be nice if really sick people could stay home… But having someone with a cold on a flight seems to be just one of the health hazards of flying, unfortunately.

  • Reply
    Cathy Sweeney
    October 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I can’t argue with these points. For sure, many people fly when sick because of the restrictive and costly policies of the airlines. I agree that getting vaccinations like flu shots are very important. I think my annual flu shot has helped me many times over the years flying next to sick passengers.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque)
    October 19, 2013 at 12:48 am

    The last few times I’ve flown, I’ve ended up becoming ill soon after flying — head cold, stomach virus. I can’t swear I caught whatever in the air, but obviously, it’s a good bet that’s where I contracted my viruses. Sitting in economy on an airplane, one really does feel like one is sitting “cheek to germ”. I wonder if the masks everyone seems to wear in Japan are helpful and do you wear them when you’re the sick one or to protect yourself from sick people, or both?

  • Reply
    Barbara Kingstone
    April 10, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    In January I purchased a well prices ticket to Brazil, from Flight Hub,where I was to go to visit in March. I did and also purchased cancellation for abot $100. As a travel writer, I’m always concerned about getting ill away from home but I’ve been very lucky..that is until this trip from March 22 to April 4. When I became ill I went to the tourism office in Natal where their phone and computer weren’t working. The only place to get a ticket home (Toronto) was at the new airport which from Natal is about 1 hour. Other than TAM, not one other airline counter was open. Marta couldn’t speak English. I recruited wonderful Kalenka but even she could make Marta understand that she had to cancel my ticket home and sell me another. Under the circumstances I took what I could get and that was a $2000.00 until New York (one way) and then had to go to La Guardia for a $300 to fly to Toronto. At JFK, they wanted $1200 for one way to Toronto. The problem is that TAM and Flight Hub are sayinng that I didn’t tell them I wanted my ticket canceled..which I most certainly did but not in writing. Even with the policy, I am having a terrible time trying to get some of my money returned. What’s the point of cancellation policy if the fine print is SO fine that it’s impossible to know whether I’ll ever see any money returned. Should this be brought to some in IATA. I did speak with a superior at TAM and he was rude, unwilling to discuss the situation. I was in Brazil for 4 days and had to return home. Any suggestions about cancellation policies. To buy or not to buy, that’s my question? B. Kingstone

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 10, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      So sorry to hear about your illness and the difficulties you encountered with your cancellation policy. I’ve never purchased trip cancellation insurance so can’t help you on that end. Christopher Elliot acts as a consumer advocate and watchdog. You might want to pose your question on his website.

      Best, Irene

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