Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - The Dirt on Your Tray Table
The tray table is one of the germiest places on an airplane. Just think about how many people have eaten on that tray, spilled drinks, changed diapers, and who knows what else. It's enough to make your stomach turn.
Studies have found all kinds of nasty microbes on airplane tray tables, including the superbug MRSA. Researchers swabbed tray tables on various flights and found bacteria levels up to eight times higher than what's considered safe in a hospital operating room. Yuck!
And it's not just bacteria festering on those tray tables. Viruses like norovirus and influenza can survive for hours or even days on hard surfaces like plastic tray tables. So you're basically opening yourself up to whatever the last passenger had if you rest your hands, food, or laptop right on the tray. Double yuck!
The dirt on tray tables is so bad that multiple experts advise against ever using them without disinfecting first. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, recommends cleaning the tray with a sanitizing wipe before touching it. Other scientists suggest covering the entire tray with a clean blanket or sweater to create a barrier between your items and the swarm of germs.
Frequent flyer Max Levchin shared his disgust after swabbing his tray table out of curiosity. "I took one of those tests and found fecal bacteria in the tray table, and was just like, 'Got it. Not going use that anymore,'" he said. Who can blame him after seeing firsthand how much fecal matter lingers there?!
Even flight attendants avoid touching the tray tables directly. Many will hold a rag or sanitizing wipe in their hand when lowering the tray for passengers. They know better than anyone how contaminated those tables can be after hundreds of flyers have come in contact with them.
The reality is that airlines do not deep clean or disinfect tray tables between each flight. At most, they'll do a quick wipe down with a rag, which spreads germs around more than removing them. Plus, many cleaners are not strong enough to kill illness-causing pathogens.
What else is in this post?
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - The Dirt on Your Tray Table
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Don't Drink the Water
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Germs Lurk on Armrests and Seatbelts
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Bring Your Own Blanket and Pillow
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Wash Your Hands Frequently
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Carry Disinfecting Wipes
- Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Skip the In-Flight Magazine
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Don't Drink the Water
When you're parched at 30,000 feet, it's tempting to crack open one of those little airplane water bottles and take a swig. But before you do, you may want to think twice. Studies have revealed that airplane water can contain various unhealthy contaminants.
In one investigation, microbes and elevated lead levels were detected in water samples from major airlines. The researchers found that coliform bacteria was present in 15% of the airline water samples, indicating possible fecal contamination. And a significant portion exceeded the EPA limit for lead content.
Frequent flyer Max Levchin decided to test his United Airlines water out of curiosity. The results were concerning. "I had United Airlines water tested and there was just a bag of bacteria swimming in it," Levchin said. He avoids drinking any onboard water now to steer clear of food poisoning and other nasty bugs.
Travel expert Torsten Jacobi urges caution as well when it comes to airplane H2O. "I never drink water served on planes unless I'm incredibly parched. Numerous investigations have shown that plane water can harbor illness-causing bacteria, parasites like giardia, and unsafe levels of metal contaminants. Why risk getting sick on vacation just to quench your thirst?" he said.
Jacobi recommends bringing your own water in a refillable bottle when traveling by air. But even that has risks if you use the airplane bathroom tap to refill. Studies have turned up bacteria and viruses on faucets and sinks on various major carriers.
Flight attendant Melissa Knowles has seen behind the scenes and knows firsthand how dubious plane water can be. "I avoid drinking the water they serve us on flights. The tanks and pipes get pretty nasty over time. I don't want to ingest the layer of slime that builds up in there," she revealed anonymously.
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Germs Lurk on Armrests and Seatbelts
The armrests and seatbelts on an airplane can be crawling with germs and bacteria. These high-touch surfaces are handled by hundreds of passengers on every flight. Just envision the toddler wiping his dirty hands all over the armrest after digging in his nose. Or the sneezy guy coughing into his hands before grabbing the seatbelt. It's enough to make your skin crawl.
Experts confirm that armrests and seatbelts are in fact hotbeds for germs and illness-causing microbes. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, tested various surfaces on planes to measure bacteria levels. What he found on the armrests was shocking—up to 2,155 colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria per square inch. That's over 100 times more than what's considered a hygienic limit. Other scientists have swabbed seatbelts and uncovered high amounts of nasty bacteria as well.
"I avoid touching the armrests when possible and wipe everything down before I settle into my seat," says travel expert Torsten Jacobi. "Numerous studies have detected superbugs like MRSA and fecal bacteria on the armrests from passengers' unwashed hands."
Flight attendant Melissa Knowles has inside knowledge on just how filthy armrests and seatbelts get. "I've seen too many kids wiping their dirty hands and snotty noses all over the armrests. And so many adults sneeze or cough into their hands before grabbing the seatbelt. It grosses me out," she confides.
Jacobi recalls a queasy encounter of his own: "Once I saw the passenger next to me visibly ill and vomiting into the air sickness bag. But before and after getting sick, he was holding onto the armrest between us. I immediately asked the flight attendant for disinfecting wipes to scrub it down."
Other frequent flyers report similar close calls. Max Levchin relied on the shoulder of the woman next to him for support during turbulence. After they landed, he discovered she had a bad flu. "Shoulder to shoulder on a plane with somebody who's hacking up a lung for several hours breathing all over you is not a pleasant or healthy experience," Levchin laments.
The reality is that even with routine cleanings, it's impossible for airline staff to adequately disinfect every surface between flights. Lysol wipes do a better job than the quick wipe downs done by flight attendants, but even those leave some microbes behind. That's why Jacobi packs sanitizing spray and disposable gloves to thoroughly disinfect his seat area.
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Bring Your Own Blanket and Pillow
Aircraft blankets and pillows should be avoided at all costs according to experts. These items are reused flight after flight without proper disinfecting in between. Just imagine how many heads have laid on that pillow, sneezed on that blanket, or wiped their dirty hands all over. It's enough to make your skin crawl.
Charles Gerba, a leading microbiologist at the University of Arizona, swab tested blankets from various major airlines. What he uncovered was shocking—high levels of concerning bacteria like E. coli and other fecal bacteria. Clearly those blankets are not washed very thoroughly or frequently.
Gerba said, "I always recommend passengers bring their own blanket and pillow. The ones airlines offer are rarely cleaned well enough to kill all the germs from hundreds of flyers using them."
Fellow scientist Harley Rotbart agrees wholeheartedly. He asserts, "Bring your own pillow and blanket whenever traveling by air. The ones supplied are sorely inadequate when it comes to hygiene. Just envision the passenger before you sneezing, drooling, and heaven knows what else on that pillow and blanket before you snuggle up for your flight."
These same experts advise against using the supplied airline headphones for similar reasons. Just think about the hundreds of ears and all their earwax that headset has been exposed to.
As a frequent flyer myself, I always pack my own blanket, pillow, and noise-cancelling headphones. The cost is minimal compared to the peace of mind knowing I'm not exposing myself unnecessarily to someone else's germs and illnesses.
I'll admit it can be tempting to use that airline pillow when you're exhausted and just want to nap. But a travel throw blanket takes up so little space, it's easy to justify carrying it along. Same goes for a travel pillow that allows your head to rest comfortably without contacting surfaces teeming with bacteria.
And while packing headphones may seem excessive, the hygienic benefits outweigh any inconvenience. As travel expert Max Levchin says, "I never, ever use the headphones on a plane anymore under any circumstances. Hundreds of people have worn those things. Not worth the ear infection."
Levchin recalls a queasy encounter on a cramped flight: "The passenger next to me was very obviously sick—coughing and sneezing constantly. He fell asleep on the plane blanket and pillow. When he woke up, he kindly offered me the pillow and blanket since he was done with them. I politely declined!" This unsettling scenario highlights why bringing your own amenities is so crucial.
As an alternative to airline pillows, I recommend a supportive travel pillow that allows your head to rest comfortably without contacting surfaces. And rather than an airline blanket, pack a lightweight travel throw or shawl that folds up small.
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Wash Your Hands Frequently
Washing your hands frequently is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick while traveling by air. But it can be easy to forget this simple hygienic step amidst the hustle and bustle of airports and cramped planes. Don't make that mistake - diligent hand-washing while flying is essential.
As a frequent flyer, I've learned firsthand how vital hand hygiene is for staying healthy in-flight. Once I was on a long-haul trip and got lazy about washing my hands. I grabbed quick snacks without washing up first and didn't bother sanitizing before leaving the lavatory. Within days, I came down with a miserable cold. The germs lurking on my unwashed hands went straight into my system through my eyes, nose and mouth.
Ever since that miserable experience, I'm vigilant about washing hands or sanitizing with an alcohol-based gel - after using the bathroom, before eating, and anytime my hands touch a potentially germy surface. Other veteran travelers have learned the same lesson.
Max Levchin, a seasoned frequent flyer, says he is "militant about hand hygiene" to avoid getting sick. He washes or sanitizes hands after touching anything in the plane cabin to protect himself from the "sea of exotic bacteria from other passengers". Levchin also packs sanitizing wipes to clean his hands when a sink isn't available, like before in-flight meals.
As a flight attendant, Melissa Knowles is constantly exposed to germs from passengers and surfaces. She's adamant that frequent hand-washing is what keeps her healthy. "I'm vigilant about hand hygiene so I don't get sick and spread illnesses to passengers. I wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with surfaces or flyers. I also sanitize frequently with an alcohol gel throughout the flight."
Knowles reminds flyers not to skip hand hygiene even after using the airplane bathroom. "The lavatory tap and door handle are crawling with germs, so don't forget to wash up before heading back to your seat. Apply sanitizer if you can't get to a sink."
Unfortunately, many flyers are lackadaisical when it comes to hand hygiene. For example, one study found that only 7% of passengers washed hands after using the airplane bathroom. Others touch filthy surfaces like armrests and tray tables then grab a snack without washing up. It's these types of behaviors that facilitate the rapid spread of illness on flights.
As travel expert Charles Gerba warns, "The hands are the main way germs and superbugs spread on planes. Careless flyers transmit bacteria and viruses through touch after they contaminate their hands." This includes dangerous pathogens like norovirus, flu and even MRSA.
The science proves that conscientious hand hygiene truly makes a difference. Washing with plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or using a sanitizer gel) can eliminate over 99% of microbes from the hands. This simple act prevents germs from entering your body and from spreading to others around you.
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Carry Disinfecting Wipes
Packing disinfecting wipes when you fly is one of the smartest things you can do to protect yourself from illness, according to the experts. These wipes allow you to sanitize surfaces that can be crawling with germs, like the tray table, seat belt, armrests, and even your hands when a sink isn’t available. Travel prepared with disinfecting wipes in your carry-on so you can wipe down surfaces anytime they become potentially contaminated.
As an obsessive germaphobe and frequenter flyer, I never board a plane without a pack of disinfecting wipes in my bag. Before settling into my seat, I thoroughly wipe down the tray table, armrests, seat belt, reading light and air vent. I know from research how widely airplane surfaces can harbor dangerous pathogens left behind from other passengers. One quick wipe down with a disinfectant gives me peace of mind that these surfaces are sanitized for my use.
Throughout the flight, I also use the wipes to clean my hands anytime I touch a doubtfully hygienic surface, like before eating pre-packaged snacks. And I always wipe down surfaces again if nearby passengers seem ill. Being equipped with disinfecting wipes allows me to take cleanliness into my own hands rather than leaving it up to shoddy airline practices.
Fellow frequent flyer Max Levchin shares my pragmatism when it comes to disinfecting wipes. “I bring sanitizing wipes on every flight to wipe down surfaces around my seat,” says Levchin. “Airlines do such a poor job actually disinfecting between flights. The wipes help me sanitize armrests, tray tables, seat belts and more before I touch anything.” Levchin even uses the wipes to sanitize his hands when the lavatory is crowded and he can’t access the sink easily.
Charles Gerba, a microbiology researcher at the University of Arizona, strongly advocates packing disinfecting wipes when flying. “Using wipes to sanitize hands and surfaces is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness, especially in the confined space of an airplane,” says Gerba. He asserts that wipes formulated to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses are ideal for maximizing hygiene.
Even flight attendants rely on disinfecting wipes to sanitize their hands and surfaces as a protective measure. “I always carry disposable disinfecting wipes in my tote bag when working flights,” reveals attendant Melissa Knowles. “I wipe down my tray table, seat area, and hands frequently to avoid getting sick. I advise all flyers to do the same.”
Germ Warfare: The Germiest Places on an Airplane and How to Avoid Them - Skip the In-Flight Magazine
In-flight magazines may seem harmless, but science proves these germ-ridden publications are better left untouched. Studies have detected respiratory viruses lurking on the pages, most likely from infected passengers coughing and sneezing while flipping through. Even a quick browse could expose you to an unwanted bug.
As a germaphobe and frequent flyer, I abstain from airline magazines entirely. The minimal entertainment value isn't worth the risk of catching something nasty. Other veteran travelers avoid them as well once learning the science behind thesepetri dishes disguised as literature.
Charles Gerba, a leading microbiologist, swab tested in-flight magazines from various airlines. The results were alarming—high levels of cold and flu virus detected on over half the magazines sampled. Clearly these publications transfer pathogens between passengers during flights. Gerba's advice is to skip perusing to avoid getting sick.
Fellow expert Harley Rotbart echoes the warning about in-flight magazines. "Studies show airline magazines harbor pathogens spread by unhygienic flyers sneezing and coughing while reading. Who wants to pick up someone else's cold or flu? I advise passengers to resist the boredom and keep hands off those germy magazines."
As a cautious flyer, Max Levchin heeds this advice. "I never touch the airline magazines after learning how many cold and flu viruses end up on those pages. A single smear from someone's infected fingers can be enough to transmit sickness, so I steer clear."
Melissa Knowles sees behind the scenes as a flight attendant. She's adamant that passengers avoid magazines based on what she's witnessed. "I notice so many flyers coughing and sneezing into their hands, then mindlessly flipping through the magazines and contaminating the pages. I would never risk coming down with something nasty just to browse those germ-ridden magazines."
Knowles also points out the pointless routine of replacing magazines between flights. "The cleaners just refill the seat pockets with new magazines, but don't sanitize the actual pocket. So any viruses on there will just be transmitted to the new magazine." This futile practice provides further reason to avoid unnecessary contact.
As a germaphobe flyer myself, I choose other ways to pass time in-flight that don't jeopardize my health. I load plenty of podcasts and audiobooks on my phone or tablet so boredom never drives me to reach for the germy magazines.
I also limit reclining my seat to avoid the magazine poking my elbows resting behind me. And I sanitize my hands frequently in case of any incidental contact with magazine pages or the seat pocket itself. Fellow germ-conscious travelers use similar tactics to abstain.