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


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

Similar Posts