WHEN is an empty row of seats on a long-distance flight not such a great find?
When the row is empty because the previous passengers fled their seats after claiming to see a rat scurry over their feet.
That’s the situation I found myself in on one memorable flight from the US to Europe. In hope of a row to stretch out on, I took a wander into another part of the plane and thought I had struck gold when I came across an empty row.
I asked a woman in the row behind if she knew if the row was empty. “It is now — the people who seated there were moved up the back after they said they saw a rat under their seats. That’s why we’re all sitting with our feet up.”
Sure enough, I then noticed all the people in her row and the rows on the other side of the aisle were indeed sitting with their feet up on their seats.
“I wouldn’t sit there if I was you,” a man on the aisle warned as he tightly tucked up his toes.
Ever the curious reporter, I took a wander up the back to find the relocated passengers and to hear what had gone on. It wasn’t hard to spot them — they were the agitated trio in furious discussion with a steely, unrepentant flight attendant.
The ongoing argument went something like this. Flight attendant: “No, no, all of you imagined it. It was probably a bit of garnish that fell off your tray and onto your feet.”
Upset passengers: “We know what we saw, and it was a rat.” Flight attendant: “No, you’re wrong …”
And so the exchange went back and forth. The three upset passengers also were not travelling together, so it didn’t seem to be a ruse to con the airline.
I then decided to return to my original seat, and when passing that empty row again, noticed all the passengers around it still had their feet up. When back in my own seat, I decided to do the same and explained why to the woman next to me.
“I swear I felt something before flit over my feet, but assumed it was a bag in the row in front,” she responded, as she then lifted her feet as well.
We stayed that way for the rest of the flight.
On landing in London, I did some investigation and discovered a wide number of reports of rat infestations at world airports, where the rodents had also found their way on-board.
Aside from the obvious health risks of rats roaming about while 300 or so people are confined inside a plane and the diseases they can transport from country to country, they also pose a serious danger with the possibility of gnawing on the internal wiring and mechanisms that keep the aircraft in the sky.
But never have I heard of or read any reports about rats on planes in Australia. It seems our stringent quarantine laws and a range of protocols at local airports are responsible for that. Those controls come under the direction of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
Australian legislation states all aircraft entering Australia must be treated in a manner approved by the Director of Human Biosecurity.
“Australia has a strong, established biosecurity system that safeguards our nation from these and other significant biosecurity threats,” head of biosecurity operations at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Nico Padovan said.
“Live rodents pose a significant risk. We work closely with international airlines to ensure their staff can effectively contain any biosecurity risks on board and alert our biosecurity officers on arrival in Australia.
“We also have robust measures in place at international airports, including biosecurity officers, x-ray machines and detector dogs.”
Quarantine laws instructs a two-pronged approach to be taken on the ground by both the airlines and the terminals.
A spokesperson for Virgin Australia said on-board hygiene remains a top priority.
“We have strict cleaning processes in place and hold very high standards for on-board cleanliness. Virgin Australia carries out aircraft disinfections as our pest control measure in accordance with Australian legislation and the Director of Human Biosecurity.”
Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport with its four terminals is one of the busiest in the country, and a multi-layered approach to pest management is implemented.
A Tullamarine spokesperson said: “It starts with a wildlife hazard management plan for the airfield, through to broad pest management plans within the terminal buildings. Tenants within the terminals also have their own pest management plans, such as the health and safety requirements for the commercial kitchen operators.”
Even with all this reassurance, however, here’s one travel trip I continue to share. The next time you’re flying and gleefully spot an empty row that’s surrounded by other passengers with their feet up off the floor, just keep walking.