Lice On The Plane: Grounds For Grounding Passengers? It Happened To One Family On Delta

Here’s a word of advice if you’re planning to fly Delta Air Lines:

Do not scratch your head during the flight, except in the privacy of a restroom.

If you’re scratching your head as to why you shouldn’t scratch your head in public aboard a Delta jet, here’s a cautionary tale for you:

On a Delta flight from Paris to Nashville by way of Minneapolis last weekend, flight attendants told a family of five that they could not board the plane for the last leg of their trip home until they went to a Minneapolis hospital emergency department to be treated for head lice, all because the 6-year-old middle son began scratching his head mid-flight while waiting to use the bathroom.

The boy's mother checked to see why he was scratching and concluded that he had lice, and then several flight attendants rushed over to peer at the kid's head and gasp, "Oh, my God, he has lice." When the plane landed in Minneapolis, the flight attendants forced the family to stay on the plane while all the other passengers got off. The family was allowed off only after two "medical personnel" came on board to take the children's temperature. Huh?

I know all this because the kid's father, Clay Travis, happens to be both a lawyer and a writer, so, of course, he wrote and posted an approximately 2,500-word piece about the incident on Outkick the Coverage. (I emailed Travis to check in on his family, but he didn't respond.)


Travis emailed me Sunday afternoon. In his column, he had written that he and his youngest son, who's 2, were examined for head lice after the plane landed in Minneapolis and found to have none. I had asked Travis who examined them, and he said he had no idea. "It was an examination that was forced upon us by the Delta flight attendant," he told me. "There's no way Delta can defend that decision or suggest their employees should be in the business of demanding medical examination of minor children who fly on their airplanes."

Delta spokesman Anthony Black supplied me with a prepared statement about the Travis family's experience, but it raised more questions than it answered:

“Delta flight attendants are trained to [perform] a first-responder role as outlined by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. Direct examination of a passenger outside of [the] first-responder emergency role is not within their scope.

So Delta considers head lice to be an emergency? "There is not a specific policy on dealing with lice," the airline's statement went on to say.

If there's no specific policy about lice, weren't the flight attendants acting outside of their scope, to use the airline's language, when they banned the Travis family? "Our flight attendants rely on their broad skill sets to make recommendations around passengers' fitness-to-fly," Black told me in an email. "I do not have specific details on what the flight attendants did with the child. It appears the flight was met by local paramedics."

Paramedics? Seriously?

Black also directed me to Delta's "conditions for passenger removal," a.k.a. Rule 35, "Refusal to Transport," Section F, "Passenger's Conduct or Condition"

"Delta may refuse to transport any passenger, or may remove any passenger from its aircraft, when refusal to transport or removal of the passenger is reasonably necessary in Delta's sole discretion for the passenger's comfort or safety, for the comfort or safety of other passengers or Delta employees," Section F states. It then lists 11 situations in which "Delta may refuse to transport or may remove passengers from its aircraft." It includes "when the passenger is barefoot" (No. 2) and "when the passenger has a malodorous condition" (No. 6).

As Black said, there is no mention of lice, but he cited situation No. 5 to explain Delta's treatment of the Travis family: "When the passenger has a contagious disease that may be transmissible to other passengers during the normal course of the flight."

Contagious disease? Sorry, but I think the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is more of an authority than Delta Air Lines on what constitutes a contagious disease, and this is what the CDC has to say: "Head lice are not known to transmit any disease and therefore are not considered a health hazard." And the American Academy of Pediatrics says children should not be kept out of school just because they have head lice or nits (eggs) in their hair. I have to assume that the pediatricians, if asked, would also say that children should not be kept off of airplanes just because they have head lice or someone suspects they do.

Delta's actions made little sense to me, so I contacted my go-to head lice expert, Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist—bug specialist—based at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. As Pollack describes it, his main day job is senior environmental public health officer for Harvard University, which occupies more than 300 buildings in several different cities. He helps set policies about how to deal with such issues as head lice. He is also the president and chief scientific officer of a company called IdentifyUS, which, as you might have guessed, is in the business of identifying pests and providing guidance on how to manage them.

Pollack and I go way back, probably to the time my now 18-year-old daughter was kicked out of school in second grade—on picture day, no less—because she had dead lice eggs, or nits, in her long brown hair (yes, they were dead—I’d treated her with malathion, a pesticide sprayed on crops to prevent mosquito infestation that’s relatively safe and virtually 100% effective in killing head lice and nits). But that’s a story for another day. (If you're interested, I, like Travis, felt compelled to write about my child's lice incident.)

“I had seen some references to this curious and troubling incident, but I wasn’t sure it was genuine,” Pollack said in response to my sending him the link to Travis’s column. “I’ve dealt many times with creatures found on planes, passengers and luggage."

In those cases, typically, a flight crew member notified airline officials that someone on the aircraft had or was suspected of having head lice, Pollack said. "Mass hysteria broke out." Once, a 747 sat parked on the end of the tarmac for three or four days because none of the flight crew or cleaning crew would dare to step foot on it. What could they spray to kill the lice? the airline asked. Oh, Pollack reassured the company, probably nothing could survive inside a plane that had sat for days on a hot tarmac.

"Rarely have logic and good sense prevailed," Pollack told me. "If lice could laugh, they’d be in absolute hysterics.”