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From a Doctor Karl science podcast - titled "Blue Bottles, Sun and Farts", it was claimed that certain flights are more… odoriferous than others.

As it happens, I'm anosmic so it wouldn't bother me anyway, but are there certain flight times that due to [reasons?], would on average smell more than others?

I suspect reasons might include time of day (more people asleep on redeyes?), type of meal served, or just length of flights?

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    The volume of air passed through ventilation in a typical commercial aircraft is very high. I challenged the notion that a flight on average has any particular smell, though you may experience something because you are near a particular odoriferous source, ie, the guy next to you stinks because he thought boiled eggs was acceptable travel food.
    – user27701
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:08
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    For me, perfumes are the real killer. They stick my eyes and give me headaches, yet society is obsessed with putting perfume in / on everything. Even so-called "deodorants" are not de-odoring (removing odor) but are adding smell on top.
    – Stewart
    Feb 9, 2023 at 18:41
  • I've noticed that western airplanes tend to smell of stale coffee, while Asian ones tend not to. Anyone else? Feb 11, 2023 at 0:32

2 Answers 2

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Certain groups of people have certain odors. I think genetics, cuisine, personal hygiene standards among that group, and other factors do affect this. This is not a bad thing, different human groups do look different, dress different, and occasionally smell different.

While in some flights you might be suffering to breathe, for the dominating group of the passengers there is nothing to smell and everything is ok.

Among some groups in certain countries, deodorants are not a thing, that also might affect your nose experience greatly. This group of people might be suffering in a flight with people who use too much deodorant, as it is annoying to them. It's all subjective to what's the nose is being used to.

Luck also plays a part in this, you might be unlucky enough to be seated next to a passenger who believes that deodorants cause cancer, in a flight departing from a city with a 50°C average temperature (122°F). Your ability to hold your gag reflex will be stress-tested, while the passengers two rows away are fine.

An example would be some flights heading to Indonesia, especially if it's a night flight, the plane will smell like the inside of a Vicks bottle due to the ointments they use. Personally, it bothers me, while for Indonesians and many others it is ok. I could list other examples, but someone might get offended.

As for food served, of course during the meal service the smell of food might be overwhelming, but that is usually temporary.

One more factor, if your seat is close to the lavatory then you are just waiting for it. If your seat is close to the galleys, this might also have a great odor additions, sometimes you might smell a burning smell when the crew are heating the meals.

I am talking out of experience as an ex-flight attendant for many years.

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    I don't think I've been on a plane that served food which smelled like anything in quite some time. Mostly you get nuts or pretzels or cookies or something, and they're all pretty much odorless. Maybe on the long-haul international flights it's more common? Even then, though, I think most of the food they serve is chosen to be relatively low in odor. Feb 9, 2023 at 14:32
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    @DarrelHoffman Yes, regarding international flights having the cooked meals, but a bit no on them being relatively odorless. A cold sandwich won't smell much, which is a typical lunch service, but the dinner and breakfast meals are usually hot and quite aromatic. In this way, the claim in the question might be true, but the food smell will only be noticeable for 60 minutes or so, on a flight that lasts 6-12 hours.
    – user27701
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:51
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    I think we can even separate ethnic origin and food ingested recently. A plane full of Europeans departing some place in Europe should have a different smell than the same plane with the same people departing India (where, presumably, people who often don't eat Indian food might have eaten a moderate amount in recent days). Feb 9, 2023 at 16:25
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    On international flights they still serve meals. I think it may even be a rule. On flights to and from Asia, many of the meals will smell much stronger than a packet of pretzels.
    – stannius
    Feb 9, 2023 at 17:31
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    and then there are people who use so much deodorant, combined with other perfumes, that THAT becomes a major clash of the olfactory senses. ESPECIALLY when there are dozens of them and all use different scents.
    – jwenting
    Feb 10, 2023 at 11:33
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Couple other sources to add to the previous suggestions:

  • Some flights are more congested than other flights, both in terms of the plane's physical layout, and/or the passenger loadout traveling on the flight. A densely packed flight, with extremely close seat spacing would tend to concentrate smells.
  • Some airplanes have better airflow systems than others. I've been on several smaller flights where the air conditioning was rather anemic. This can also vary by whether passengers are actually using the air conditioning.
  • Some flights have different seat types that aid or hamper smell removal (ex: leather vs fabric), and for older flights there can also be issues with prior events that linger. Someone spilled something, it was difficult to remove, or not obvious, and then the seat has a slight smell.

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