Health & Wellness

Germs On a Plane? You Bet!

Short of donning a hazmat suit for your next flight, there’s no surefire way to protect yourself from germs on a plane. But there are steps you can take to keep bacteria at bay.

Does it ever seem that flying and getting sick go hand-in-hand? While I’ve never seen the correlation proven with any degree of scientific rigor, it’s a commonly held notion, and one that makes sense. All those bodies, with all their various germs, enclosed in a hermetically sealed tube, breathing recycled air for several hours. The odds of catching someone else’s cold, or worse, have to skyrocket.

Short of donning a hazmat suit for your next flight, there’s no surefire way to protect yourself from germs on a plane. But knowing where they tend to disproportionately congregate will at least allow you to exercise extra caution where it’s most likely to be needed.

Apparently spurred by just such thoughts, dispatched a microbiologist to collect samples from four different flights, and from five airports. Among the key findings: “It is the one surface that our food rests on—the tray table—that was the dirtiest of all the locations and surfaces tested. Since this could provide bacteria direct transmission to your mouth, a clear takeaway from this is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table.”

Other particularly germy places on the plane:

  • Overhead air vents
  • Lavatory flush buttons
  • Seatbelt buckles

At the tested airports, the highest concentrations of bacteria were found on water-fountain buttons and bathroom stall locks.

The study noted that none of the bacteria collected in its limited sampling was worrisome from a health perspective. But it might have been.

There are a couple of takeaways from the study. First, the airlines could and should do a better job of sanitizing areas of the plane, like tray tables, where the most bacteria were found. And even in the unlikely event that the airlines redouble their cleaning efforts, germ warfare is ultimately in the hands, literally and figuratively, of travelers themselves. Hand-washing is no guarantee, but it’s probably the best available defense against bacteria-borne ailments. Unless you’re willing to go full hazmat.

Reader Reality Check

Do you find yourself often getting sick following airline trips?

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By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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