High Altitude Flatus Expulsion

The job of a commercial airline is simple: fly people from point A to point B. And when a flight takes off from one location but lands somewhere other than its intended destination, that means something went wrong. That’s what happened in February 2018. Transavia Airlines is a Dutch budget airline that serves just under 100 destinations throughout Europe, the Middle East, and a few other locations here and there. When its Dubai to Amsterdam flight unexpectedly landed in Vienna, people wanted answers.

The culprit? Farts. On the February 11th flight, a passenger kept passing gas, much to the chagrin of his fellow travelers. As the Register explained in a wonderfully pun-filled report, the other passengers were “put out by the man’s continued farting, and asked him to stop. But the man failed to hold it in, and when even a direct order from the pilot didn’t take the wind out of his sails, two particularly incensed passengers took matters into their own hands. Local media reported that two Dutchmen sat next to the trumper started a fight with the man, which escalated to the point where the pilot was forced to make an unscheduled stop [in Austria].” Farts and planes — they just don’t create for good situations.

So, yes, this could have all been avoided if the flatulent passenger simply stopped passing gas. But maybe he couldn’t control it? Do planes make us fart? Maybe, according to a study from the early 1980s.

As proof that the science community will study just about anything, in 1981, a pair of doctors published a paper titled “High Altitude Flatus Expulsion,” or HAFE for short. The paper actually focuses not on airplanes, but on mountain claimers. The physicians (via Discover) observed “an increase in both the volume and the frequency of the passage of flatus, which spontaneously occurs while climbing to altitudes of 11,000 feet or greater.” The pair also observed that “the syndrome invariably abated on descent leads” which led them to think that the decreased atmospheric pressure associated with high altitudes created the increase in noxious emissions. In other words, the higher up we go, the more we fart. 

It’s likely there’s something to that. Huff Post spoke with Dr. David Shlim, a former president of the International Society of Travel Medicine about the problem. Huff Post cabins the issue neatly:

Airplane cabins are pressurized to between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, which is a significant altitude change for your body if you’ve come from sea level, Shlim told HuffPost. And just as the air in your water bottle expands at higher altitudes, the gas in your intestines can expand on a plane, growing to take up about 30 percent more room than usual.

And, per Shlim, as “the air pressure in an airplane is different than on the ground, in certain people, it can predispose them to developing more gas.”

So if you’re a bit more smelly on an airplane than you are in other situations, don’t beat yourself up over it. (And if your neighbor is smellier, don’t beat them up either!) 

Bonus fact: If you’re prone to lighting a match to hide the smell and embarrassment of your recently-passed gas, that may be an okay idea when on the ground, but it’s a very, very bad idea in flight. And yet, it’s happened at least once. In 2006, according to the Associated Press, “An American Airlines flight was forced to make an emergency landing  [. . .] after a passenger lit a match to disguise the scent of flatulence.” Other passengers, smelling the sulfur from the lit match, got worried and alerted the flight crew; as a precaution, the Dallas-bound flight took an unexpected stop in Nashville. The FBI came onto the scene and determined what happened — and that the flight was safe to continue onward to Texas. However, it did so with one fewer passenger; per the AP, “the flight took off again, but the woman was not allowed back on the plane.”

Double bonus!: Farting in flight may be beyond your control, but if you do so excessively before you board the plane, the airline may not let you board. Airlines have contracts of carriage that dictate the terms and conditions of your ticket, and many have rules regarding bodily odors. Delta’s, for example (available here), notes that disability aside, “Delta may refuse to transport or may remove passengers from its aircraft [. . .] when the passenger’s conduct, attire, hygiene or odor creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.”

From the Archives: A Mighty Wind: Japanese fart art.