True or false?: It’s the recirculated air on commercial aircraft that’s responsible for travelers’ propensity to get sick when flying.
False. It turns out that more germs are spread by human movement throughout the aircraft cabin than are spread by recirculated air.
That’s according to a study published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Behaviors, movements, and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights.” That finding leads directly to a surprisingly concrete recommendation on how to avoid germs on the plane: To minimize the chances of contracting an air-borne illness when flying, you should sit in a window seat. And to be even more careful, you could remain there for the duration of the flight to avoid most of the germs passing through the cabin.
“With over 3 billion airline passengers annually, the inflight transmission of infectious diseases is an important global health concern … air travel can serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics,” the study noted. “Despite sensational media stories and anecdotes, the risks of transmission of respiratory viruses in an airplane cabin are unknown. Movements of passengers and crew may facilitate disease transmission.”
“The window seats are a little less risky than the aisle seats,” Vicky Hertzberg, a scientist in charge of the study, told NPR.
The study simulated the transmission of pathogens in a plane cabin to conclude as much: “On 10 transcontinental US flights, we chronicled behaviors and movements of individuals in the economy cabin on single-aisle aircraft. We simulated transmission during flight based on these data. This data-driven, dynamic network transmission model of droplet-mediated respiratory disease is unique,” the study states.
You won’t get sick from using the air flowing through the nozzle above you, as many travelers mistakenly believe. You’re more likely to get sick from other people and items passing through the cabin. And sitting by the window means being further from all the germ traffic.
To put the fear of airborne germs into some perspective, the study notes that on a plane with 150 passengers, one of whom is contagiously sick, only one additional passenger is likely to be infected. The passengers most likely to be infected are the 11 sitting closest to the sick person.
How much of a concern is getting sick when you pick your plane seat?
More from SmarterTravel:
- 9 Products for Germaphobes to Bring on Every Trip
- The Dirtiest Spot in the Airport Is Something You’re Probably Touching
- 18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
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Editors note: This story was originally published in 2018 by SmarterTravel’s Tim Winship. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.