It was an idyllic, picture-perfect birthday for Tom Kelleher. He was celebrating by watching the sun rise over the Seine on a beautiful summer morning as his red-eye to Paris approached Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Shortly thereafter his celebration came to an abrupt end.
By the time he and his wife reached their hotel, Kelleher, who had just turned 33, was dealing with an insufferable itch. He lifted his shirt and found he was covered with painful insect bites on the left and right sides of his torso. He went to a pharmacy in Paris to find something to calm the bites, which swelled into angry red welts. The pharmacist told Kelleher, “Those look like bedbug bites.”
“During the flight I did see a very small insect on my shoulder, it looked like a tiny roach,” said Kelleher, who lives in Cambridge and flew from Boston to Paris on American Airlines. “I flicked it off. What I should have done was call the flight attendant. But later when I looked up bedbugs online, the pictures matched the bug on my shoulder.”
But American Airlines, which Kelleher contacted shortly after he arrived in Paris, has a different take.
“We spoke with our medical team. They say that it is a low chance of bedbugs causing this,” said spokesman Ross Feinstein. “Spider, flea, or mosquito bites occurring prior to the flight seem more likely.”
Feinstein said there were no reports of other bedbug bites on Kelleher’s flight, and there were no other reports of bedbugs on the two flights that followed.
“Although the precipitating event could have occurred on the aircraft, there is an equal chance that the precipitating event occurred prior to the flight but developed to such a point that it was discovered/noticeable during the flight,” Feinstein said in an e-mail. “Frequently such development happens days later, after somewhat vigorous scratching, leading to a secondary infection called impetigo.”
Boston-based entomologist Jonathan Boyer of Ecologic Entomology said bedbugs are “nature’s best hitchhikers” and can be found wherever people are, including cabs, hotels, and, yes, airplanes. They can find their way into luggage and are efficient travelers because unlike us, the parasites can go without feeding for long periods of time. But he said without seeing the offending insect, it would be impossible to determine if the bites were caused by bedbugs. It’s also difficult to place the timing of the bites, because reaction times vary.
Dermatologists consulted by the Globe said photos of Kelleher’s bites appear consistent with bedbug bites, but they also could have been caused by fleas, mosquitoes, or spiders. They also could have occurred before the flight. The Globe shared several photos of Kelleher’s bites with dermatologist Robb Marchione of Northeast Dermatology Associates, who said “it is certainly possible that these lesions are from bedbugs.”
“Bedbug bites tend to occur in a straight line and are often hive-like welts,” he said. “However, it really is impossible to determine exactly whether they are bites from bed bugs or fleas or mosquitoes. The distribution and morphology of the bites [in Kelleher’s photos] do fit with those sustained from bed bugs, but there is no definitive way to know unless you found the responsible arthropod.”
Entomologist Dong-Hwan Choe of the Department of Entomology at the University of California said although bedbugs can be found in areas where people tend to spend extended periods of time sleeping, resting, or sitting, such as airplanes, he agreed that photos alone would not be enough to tell if the bites came from the blood-feeding pests.
Like most airlines, American Airlines gives its planes a quick cleaning between flights, a more thorough cleaning for what’s called Remain Over Night (RON) at the end of the day, and then a deep cleaning once-a-month or so (Feinstein was unable to confirm the schedule). The deep cleaning is when the plane would also be treated for insects.
Kelleher said he spent the night before his flight at home, and not a hotel. He said he has had no problems with bedbugs in his home.
His claim against American has become a case of he said-they said as American’s Feinstein said there is not enough evidence supporting the complaint of bedbugs, and Kelleher, certain of the bites, is claiming that American’s customer service has not done enough to recognize the psychological and physical severity of his situation.
“I have already contacted the Boston Globe travel editor and plan to discuss the entirety of our ordeal,” Kelleher said in an e-mail to American dated Aug. 15. “I will except [sic] no less than a full refund.”
At the time Kelleher made the complaint, American Airlines issued him a $50 voucher toward a future flight. When the Globe contacted American to ask about Kelleher’s bites, the airline offered Kelleher another $50 voucher to reimburse him for the ointment he purchased. But the $100 flight credit falls short of the ticket refund that Kelleher was initially requesting. He paid about $1,000 for the two round-trip tickets to Paris.
“I guess I kind of appreciated [the $50 voucher], but I don’t think they understood,” Kelleher said. “I was blistering. This broke my skin. I was uncomfortable the majority of the trip. What I was expecting was a full refund of my flight.”
Kelleher, who said he has worked at more than a dozen hotels around the world and currently works in a sales customer service position, said he’s not normally the kind of person who makes a claim, but he felt in this case it was warranted.
“I wanted them to say something along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry for this awful situation.’ It just seems like the $50 was such a small thing,” he said. “The way that they responded to the situation just didn’t seem to match the level of the situation.”
After Air India passengers posted photos of their bedbug bites to social media in July, the airline offered those bitten a 75 percent refund of their fares. British Airways has run into problems with several bedbug infestations, including a business class passenger who was bitten more than 100 times on a flight to Cape Town.
Kelleher and his wife spent their first day in Paris at the laundromat, washing and drying their clothes at the highest temperatures possible to ensure the bugs would not have an opportunity to join them in their hotel room for vacation. Kelleher’s wife was not bitten and he suffered no further bites once off the plane.
Despite requesting a refund multiple times, Kelleher said his beef with the airline was how he was treated when he complained, not the refund itself.
“It was about the customer service that I have received across the board from American Airlines,” he said. “It was about the disappointment that it took . . . writing this story to get the company’s attention.”
Given that there is no concrete evidence that Kelleher’s bites were caused by bedbugs, American said it is not offering Kelleher a refund, aside from the $100 voucher.
“From our perspective, this case is closed out,” Feinstein said.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.