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Stinky Draws

It wasn’t long ago that I reentered the United States at LAX after an extended jaunt through Southeast Asia. In firm possession of a decidedly swarthy and ethnic look, it often requires that I spend an extended amount of time answering a myriad of security questions before finally clearing customs and being allowed into the good old U.S. of A.

Braced for the usual interrogation questions including – “Why are you traveling alone?” “Who were you visiting?” and “Are you bringing any illegal drugs into the country?” – I was indeed caught off guard to be on the receiving end of a new line of questioning. Traveling with only a backpack, an imposing TSA guard with a tough East Coast accent stopped me and took my passport. After flipping though it, he eyed me and firmly said, “Hey buddy, where’s the rest of your bags?” “This is it,” I replied. Immediately I started wondering what sort of red flags an already swarthy young man, now with limited baggage, sets off? “You gotta be kidding me,” continued the TSA guard. “Three weeks in Asia with only that many clothes… did you ever change your stinky draws?” In my entire life, it wasn’t until that moment that I ever questioned my hygiene. For a split second, I thought to myself, “Am I that stinky traveler that everyone hates?” I then came to my senses and realized I’m not that person; I had my “draws” laundered in Thailand, I took showers twice a day and those around me actually commented on a regular basis how pleasant I smelled. Okay, that last part isn’t true.

But still my curiosity was piqued – I wanted to know how bad the worst offending travelers smell and the experiences people who have been around smelly travelers have been forced to endure. The following are some eye (and nostril) opening accounts.

Putrid Pits & Dragon Breath

Board any commercial airliner these days and upon first inhale, you’ve filled up your lungs with the B.O. infused oxygen of several hundred passengers from the prior flight. As you sit down and the seconds turn to minutes, the minutes into hours, the myriad of new smells you experience, courtesy of all your new travel companions, often morphs into the equivalent of a firm punch in the nose.

Every flight is guaranteed to have several different types of “violent” offenders: There’s the dude with putrid pits, who has rings of powerful sweat forming underneath his arms, and never fails to lift them high in the air each time he yawns, subsequently sharing the pheromonal joy; there’s the lady with dragon breath, who hasn’t brushed her teeth since she left home two layovers and a bus ride ago; and of course there’s the kid with the dirty diaper, whose dad is drunk and mom is asleep, and who generates the most unthinkably vile waft of air no human being should ever have to experience. Anyway, getting back to basic body odor, as one frequent international traveler named Jessie puts it, “One of the problems is that in many parts of the world, antiperspirants are not widely used. So if you’re flying from Singapore to Ulaanbaatar for example, your nostrils are much more likely to get jacked with a serious dose of sweaty stink than say, a short flight from Seattle to Vancouver.” She continues, “Another major odor issue is the foods people choose to bring onboard. It’s bad enough they have to stink up the cabin with inedible “cuisine” service on international flights, but when passengers start to bring stinky delicacies like spicy chicken vindaloo or fried fish onboard, it’s just plain inconsiderate.”

If you think all of the griping about travel smells is reserved solely for passengers, think again. TSA agents, flight attendants and other airline personnel have to endure unbearable odors, too.


Travelers today rail against the inconvenience and intrusiveness of airport security pat downs by TSA agents. But according to the agents, they’re the ones who have to endure the intrusiveness of traveler stench wafting up their nostrils.

If it wasn’t bad enough that TSA agents have to feel the butts, crotches and inner thighs of travelers, they also have to deal with all of their personal hygiene problems. “When you get up close on some of these folks, you can get a whiff of all kinds of things,” said Richard, a TSA officer at Denver International. “Every time a person approaches me for a pat down, my anxiety increases. I think to myself, ‘maybe they didn’t take a shower today.’ Or ‘maybe they just came straight from the gym.’ I can tell you one thing, I didn’t sign up for this. And there’s no amount of money that makes getting up close and personal on another man’s smell worth it. Beside, I don’t make much money anyway.” Such wide spread sentiment among TSA agents makes them some of the unhappiest professionals in any field today. When you consider the backlash they’ve had to deal with since being put into place after 9/11, and the daily verbal abuse and threats they have to put up with, it’s hard to not feel at least a little bad for them.

In some instances, it gets to a point where a traveler is far too stinky to be around others and more extreme measures have to be taken.

Ejected for Odor

People have been kicked off of airplanes for all kinds of reasons: trying to bring weapons onboard; being intoxicated; being verbally abusive to passengers and crew; individuals have even been kicked off for being too fat and unable to fit in their seat. But on a recent flight operated by Air Jazz – a regional Canadian airline – for the first time a man was kicked off a plane for unbearable body odor.

As he boarded and walked down the aisle, fellow passengers were already staring at the man and mumbling their disgust. One passenger described the man’s stench as “absolutely brutal.” An airline official described the incident as one that “compromised the safety and comfort of passengers.” In such situations, it becomes necessary to remove passengers. As a result, the man was “deplaned,” refunded his money and asked to “go home and take a long soapy bath.”

With this embarrassing and odorific incident, it certainly seem that air travel has reached an all time low.

Serious Hardware

Of course there are situations where an odor offender cannot or will not be removed from a plane; in such cases there are many ways travelers can use ingenuity, or simply good hardware, to block off smells in an airplane.

One frequent international traveler, Carl, as extreme as it may seem, has another solution: “On any flight I take that’s more than an hour long, I keep a gas mask with me in case things get too unbearable and I need to filter the smells of the cabin,” said Vincent Skola, a resident of New Jersey. “You can pick one up at any Army surplus store, and even though they look a little militaristic and frightening, there hasn’t been a flight attendant who made me take it off once I explained why I was wearing it.”

The next time you find yourself in an airplane cabin filled with aromatic horrors, maybe you too should be prepared to break out the gas mask.