Airplane fart fight proves it's tough to raise a stink in a smelly world

From the airline's cramped cabin to the office's curtailed cubicle, our private and public spaces face increasing densification. But odours know no boundaries. And no one is above raising a stink.

European plane incident highlights rights boundaries raised in tight spaces like cabins and cubicles

A bad smell during flight can actually be grounds for removal on many airlines. Both WestJet and Air Canada prohibit passengers with 'an offensive odour.' (Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic)

It's every traveller's worst nightmare.

Stuck on a tight airplane seat next to someone who won't stop farting. Loudly.

Excessive flatulence led to an emergency landing this week for a Transavia flight in Europe. But when things get smelly — in the air or on land for that matter — who exactly is the victim?

Farter — or fartee? She who smelt it? Or he who dealt it?

"I think we're riddled with these sorts of questions," says Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCCLA). "You see them in the context of strata — in shared living of any kind. You see them in the context of team sports. All the places where people yell at each other."

The BCCLA typically concerns itself with larger questions around interactions between state and the individual, but Vonn said the stuff of everyday conflict also raises questions about rights.

"Some of this stuff does actually rise to the level of court interactions, and/or fisticuffs — this is what we do as human beings."

Hygiene or medical issue?

From the airline's cramped cabin to the office's curtailed cubicle, our private and public spaces face increasing densification. But odours know no boundaries. And no one is above raising a stink.

Flatulence has come up in at least two B.C. Human Rights Tribunal cases — one involving a complainant who claimed his gassiness was held against him and another who accused a co-worker of deliberately farting at him.

The cases highlight the central challenge of taking on another person's odour.

Long haul travel can be made unendurable by a smelly seatmate. Many airline rules of carriage prohibit passengers with 'offensive odour'. Bare feet are a no-no. (PassengerShaming)

In the workplace, if the cause is hygienic, an employer is within their rights to tell an employee to freshen up. But if the odour is due to a medical condition, both employers and complaining co-workers run the risk of discriminating.

The first case featured a tactfully written letter from employer to offending employee.

"Please ensure you remove yourself from your co-workers when you have the need to release gas," the letter read. "I recognize flatulence is a bodily function and that you may have a medical condition that restricts your ability to control your bodily functions. Should a condition exist, please let me know."

The complainant in the case claimed he didn't know until after he was fired that he had a medical condition. But the tribunal said it wasn't the employer's fault that he didn't see a doctor until that time.

And besides, he was also not very good at his job.

A decision to dismiss the 2017 case before the B.C. Human Rights tribunal notes there were also "persistent performance issues" involved in the case.

In the second case, an employee and director of a North Vancouver computer company complained a co-worker "would 'fart' in his face" as part of a campaign of verbal and physical abuse.

The company responded by saying the co-worker in question had Crohn's disease: "a condition which is accompanied by flatulence, and it was never directed at (the complainant) who was well aware of the condition and would himself instigate 'farty' behaviour."

The tribunal ended up dismissing the complaint, in part because the workplace was "teeming with generally abysmally inappropriate, unprofessional and puerile behaviour." But everyone took part.

Passengers 'not at their freshest'

The Transavia fart situation apparently erupted when two male passengers on the low-cost Dutch airline asked a fellow passenger to stop passing wind. He refused and a fight broke out, forcing an emergency landing in Vienna.

"This flatulence thing is unusual in how it blew up, but in general air travellers tend not to be at their freshest. If you're flying many hours, you don't have a chance to shower, maybe you've had to run to catch a connection, body odour is not uncommon," says Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of SmarterTravel, a U.S. website dedicated to providing travellers with practical advice and "trip inspiration."

"And then another problem that's fairly common is bad breath."

At least two complaints involving excessive flatulence have made their way to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. Employers can't discriminate against employees who are malodorous because of a medical condition. (Shutterstock)

A bad smell can be more than just an in-flight annoyance. According to the rules of carriage, for many airlines, it's grounds for removal.

Both WestJet and Air Canada prohibit passengers with "an offensive odour." Air Canada goes so far as to give an example: "such as from a draining wound."

Policy was put into action in February 2010, when staff on an Air Canada Jazz flight from Charlottetown to Montreal removed a man from a plane because he smelled.

At the time, a spokesperson wouldn't go into specifics but said that "any situation that is perceived as a threat to either the safety or the comfort of our passengers is taken seriously."

'There goes my reputation'

A "smelly poo" — as the BBC put it — forced the turnaround of a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Dubai in 2015.

No offender was singled out, but a traveller told newspapers the pilot made the announcement after just 30 minutes in the air saying: "You may have noticed there's a quite pungent smell coming from one of the toilets."

And passengers on long-haul international flights might want to think twice before taking their shoes off. Besides the threat of smelly feet, most airlines explicitly forbid barefoot passengers.

Perhaps no one knows the perils of raising a stink about body odour better than Richard Clem.

A U.S. judge tossed out a lawsuit last year in which Clem's wife claimed her husband had been fired because of excessive flatulence, creating an "insulting and humiliating" environment in the office where they both worked.

The judge dismissed the claim for lack of proof, but by then Clem had made international headlines.

He has since been prescribed medicine to control his bowels, but told the media it came too late.

"I feel better, but there goes my reputation," he told the New York Daily News. "Who wants to hire a fart boy?"


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.