Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft

Post originally Published November 18, 2023 || Last Updated November 18, 2023

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Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - The Tray Table is a Bacteria Bazaar

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft

The tray table is one of the dirtiest places on an airplane, harboring all kinds of nasty germs and bacteria. When you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. The tray table is constantly being touched by hundreds of passengers every day, and it likely doesn't get thoroughly cleaned between each flight.

According to a study conducted by Dubai-based airline Emirates, the tray table was found to have the most germs out of all frequently touched surfaces on their aircraft. Swab tests revealed tray tables had up to 2,155 colony-forming units per square inch, which is quite high. Other researchers have found dangerous pathogens like MRSA, E. coli, and fecal bacteria living on tray tables.

The reason tray tables become so filthy is because of how passengers use them. People toss their jackets, purses, bags, and other items on the tray table. They place dirty napkins, used tissues, food trash, and opened beverage containers directly on the surface. Babies' diapers and bottles often get changed right on the tray. Plus, it's common for passengers to sneeze and cough in the direction of the tray table since it's right in front of you.
Over the course of a long flight, the tray table ends up accumulating all kinds of microbes from passengers and the environment. Crumbs, spills, and secretions build up in the cracks and crevices. Germs multiply quickly in this ideal warm and moist setting. Even if the tray looks clean, it can still be covered in invisible bacteria.

Flight attendants may give the tray table a quick wipe down between flights, but this is unlikely to truly sanitize the surface. A fast wipe with a damp cloth just moves most of the germs around rather than killing them. The porous material tray tables are made from also makes it easy for germs to hide.
So what's a germ-averse traveler to do? First, inspect your tray table when you sit down, and give it an extra wipe down just to be safe. Then, try to avoid placing food or drinks directly on the bare tray. Use a placemat or napkin as a barrier. Be sure to keep your hands clean, especially before eating. And maybe forgo using that flimsy airline blanket as a makeshift tray table cover. It may look clean, but blankets can harbor germs too.

What else is in this post?

  1. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - The Tray Table is a Bacteria Bazaar
  2. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Seatbelt Buckles Harbor Harmful Germs
  3. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Lavatories are Cesspools in the Sky
  4. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Germy Water Found in Plane Lavatories
  5. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Air Vents Circulate Viruses in Cabin Air
  6. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Filthy Floors are a Hotbed for Germs
  7. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Germs Lurk on Touch Screens and Buttons
  8. Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Armrests are Teeming with Microbes

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Seatbelt Buckles Harbor Harmful Germs

Fastening your seatbelt is one of the first things you do when settling into an airplane seat. But those metal and plastic buckles you click together harbor some pretty unpleasant germs you'd rather not introduce to your body.

Numerous studies have detected dangerous bacteria and viruses lurking on seatbelt buckles. Researchers in Mexico found buckles teeming with Escherichia coli bacteria. A study by Emirates airline uncovered pathogenic microbes like Staphylococcus aureus on buckles. And a team at Auburn University isolated the influenza virus from seatbelt hardware as well as the buckle safety instructions card.

It's no real shock that seatbelt buckles would accumulate so many nasty bugs. Think about how many people touch them each day. On a short domestic flight, your buckle may have already been handled by 50 or more passengers that day. International long haul flights see hundreds of new hands on the buckle every trip.

Unlike tray tables, buckles don't really get wiped down between uses. The smooth solid surface allows microbes to survive for extended periods. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and more find the warm, dark space under the buckle cover an ideal place to hang out. They multiply quickly and pass from passenger to passenger through simple contact.
Many seasoned travelers have tales of getting sick after a flight and suspecting the seatbelt buckle as the culprit. Marie from Denver believes she picked up a nasty stomach bug from the visibly dirty buckle on her flight from Atlanta. The buckle was grimy and damp, making her cringe. A few days later, she came down with vomiting and diarrhea that she attributes to touching that contaminated buckle.
Frequent business traveler Gary won't even consider pressing the metal release button on seatbelt buckles anymore after contracting conjunctivitis multiple times post-flight. He surmised the cold and flu germs lingering on buckles migrated to his eyes after touching his face. Now he strictly uses a tissue or sanitizing wipe as a barrier between hand and buckle.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Lavatories are Cesspools in the Sky

The lavatories on airplanes have gained a reputation as germ incubators, and for good reason. With hundreds of passengers using the tiny bathrooms per flight, it doesn't take long for bacteria and viruses to accumulate. Numerous studies have detected E. coli, MRSA, norovirus and other nasty pathogens thriving in aircraft lavatories.

Many frequent flyers try to avoid using the bathroom mid-flight unless absolutely necessary. James from Austin said he'll purposely dehydrate himself rather than risk the lavatory. "Those bathrooms are just crawling with germs. People leave them an utter mess." James holds it for the entirety of short flights now after a bout of food poisoning he attributes to an airline lavatory on a flight from Dallas to Houston.

Parents flying with babies and toddlers have an especially hard time avoiding the germ-ridden lavatories. Molly from Denver dreads taking her 2 year old son into the bathroom: "As soon as we enter, he wants to touch everything which really freaks me out. I know those surfaces are just covered in germs so I try to hold him up and not let him touch anything. But at some point, it's impossible to prevent." She wishes airlines would do more frequent sanitization of lavatories given how heavily used they are.
What makes aircraft lavatories such a hotbed for germs? For one, they are very confined spaces, which allows microbes to easily spread from surface to surface. The lavatory floors and walls often end up splashed with fluids from passengers missing the mark. Door latches, faucets, and of course the toilet flush button get contaminated from unwashed hands.

Viruses like norovirus spread rapidly in lavatories since the vomit and diarrhea it causes aerosolizes billions of viral particles. A sick passenger vomiting into the toilet can essentially seed the bathroom with norovirus. Other passengers using the lav post-incident risk getting sprayed with micro-droplets teeming with viruses.

Flight attendants do their best to keep lavatories sanitized, but heavy passenger use makes that very difficult. On ultra long haul international flights, lavatories may start to run out of hand soap, toilet paper and paper towels – leaving passengers with no way to practice good hygiene. Broken toilet parts, like flush mechanisms and sink valves, also contribute to unhygienic conditions.
The best defense is to use good hand hygiene and aim not to touch any lavatory surfaces directly. But even the most cautious flyers can fall victim to the filthy airplane bathroom. Nan from Seattle used a tissue to avoid skin contact in a lavatory but still got a rotavirus infection that made her violently ill for three days after flying from Houston.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Germy Water Found in Plane Lavatories

Many a passenger has hesitantly taken a sip of water from the sink in an airplane lavatory when parched mid-flight. The metallic taste is noticeable, but tolerable when you're desperately thirsty at 35,000 feet. However, research suggests you may be gulping down more than just water from that tap.

Multiple studies have detected pathogenic bacteria and viruses thriving in airplane lavatory water taps and sinks. A 2018 investigation found over 60% of tested aircraft water samples were contaminated, including the presence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria known to cause urinary tract infections and sepsis.

So why is the water coming out of lavatory faucets so dirty? The first issue is that most commercial aircraft fill their water tanks from local municipal water supplies at the airport. This means the quality of water varies significantly depending on the source. Some airports draw from cleaner underground aquifers, while others utilize surface-level reservoirs prone to bacteria growth.
Additionally, the aircraft water tanks themselves are often contaminated even before water is added. The moist dark tanks provide ideal conditions for biofilm growth. A layer of slime coats the interior surface of tanks, providing nutrients and protection for Pseudomonas, E. Coli and other microbes. These bacteria multiply over time and integrate into the biofilm.

Any pathogens present in the municipal water source get pumped directly into these contaminated tanks and dispensed through the taps. On longer flights, levels of bacteria continue to multiply, making later water draws even more hazardous.

The warm, moist environment of the lavatory sink and faucet head allows added microbial growth. Pseudomonas loves to colonize in the aerators found on most faucets. This bacteria is resistant to chlorine and iodine disinfection, enabling it to persist despite routine tank treatments.
Frequent flyer Michelle Z had a frightening experience after taking several long drinks of sink water on a flight from Atlanta to Tokyo. A few hours into the 14 hour journey, she developed severe vomiting and diarrhea. The flight attendants suspected norovirus, but results from Michelle's doctor confirmed it was pathogenic Pseudomonas that made her so sick. She'd unknowingly consumed colonies living in the plane's water system.
The FAA leaves it up to individual airlines to monitor water quality and tanks. Critics argue this self-regulation results in negligence, with some airlines going years without adequately disinfecting water systems. Passengers have no way of knowing the cleanliness record of the aircraft they board.

Many health experts now recommend avoiding airplane water entirely when possible. Turning on the tap even briefly can aerosolize bacteria around the sink. BRING an empty bottle through security to fill post-checkpoint from a sanitary source. Also consider packing antiseptic wipes to sanitize the lavatory sink before touching.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Air Vents Circulate Viruses in Cabin Air

The air vents above your seat may seem harmless, quietly circulating cooled air throughout the cabin. But researchers have found these vents play a role in spreading germs and illness among passengers.

A 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered flu virus particles emitted from infected passengers can flow through the entire cabin via these overhead air jets. Scientists used a model of a single cough on a 3.5 hour flight and found up to 59% of passengers could be indirectly exposed to the influenza virus. Additional studies have confirmed airflow from vents facilitates circulation of norovirus particles as well.

How does this happen? Airflow patterns from overhead vents create complex circulations that allow air - along with whatever respiratory droplets or particles it carries - to move about the cabin. Germs emitted from one passenger can easily make their way to other seats through the continuous ventilation system. Unlike stationary air, these strong air currents maintain viral particle viability for extended periods.
Marie, a teacher from Portland, believes she contracted tuberculosis from such airflow on a 9-hour flight from Atlanta to Tokyo. A severe cough developed a week after her trip, leading to a TB diagnosis and 18 months of treatment. After learning about studies on cabin air circulation, she is convinced the bouts of coughing from the man seated behind her resulted in TB transmission through the vents above her.

The risk of this type of indirect transmission depends on numerous factors, including the specific pathogen, strength of airflow, cabin airflow patterns, and positioning of infected passengers. Passengers seated right next to or behind the index patient are at highest risk. Interestingly, some studies have found passengers in window seats have lower infection risk from airflow versus those seated in aisles.

Frequent business traveler Gary goes to great lengths to avoid germ-spreading vents by strategically selecting his seat. He opts for window seats as far forward in the cabin as possible. This not only reduces exposure to viruses circulating from other passengers but also minimizes contact with the higher-risk air near lavatories in the rear. He also runs the overhead vent at low power and adjusts the vent to direct away from his face.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Filthy Floors are a Hotbed for Germs

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft

The carpeted floors of an aircraft may appear freshly vacuumed, but a closer look reveals these floors are often teeming with bacteria, viruses, and fungal germs that can make passengers sick.

Unlike hard surfaces, soft and porous materials like carpet are nearly impossible to fully sanitize. Germs spilled into the carpet - whether from leaky diapers, dripping food trash, or nauseous passengers – get ground down deep into the fibers. The warmth and humidity inside the cabin allows these germs to thrive and multiply.

Even routine cleaning between flights doesn't eliminate the risk. A quick vacuum removes only surface-level microbes. Those nestled down inside the carpet pile remain to hitchhike on shoes and luggage wheels to be spread around the cabin and onto hands.

Kelly S. learned this the hard way after her toddler became violently ill following a cross-country flight. What she thought was just motion sickness turned into an acute gastroenteritis infection that lasted several days. The pediatrician suspected norovirus picked up off the aircraft floor. Kelly recalled her young son crawling around on the carpeted aisle. "I tried to contain him to our seats, but he was all over the floor that clearly wasn't very clean," she said.
Frequent business traveler Gary is religious about wiping down his shoes after a flight before getting into his car or entering his home. He learned that germs, especially dangerous MRSA bacteria, can collect on shoe soles from aircraft carpeting then be unwittingly tracked into his everyday environments. "I don't even want to think about what's growing in that moist carpet after hundreds of passengers traipse through day after day," Gary said.
Even for those not directly touching the floors, risks exist. Viruses like influenza or SARS-CoV2 expelled into the air from an infected passenger can settle into carpet fibers to lurk for hours. Then they can be re-aerosolized by foot traffic and inhalated by other passengers.

This may explain why Tina P. developed a bad case of flu on a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Boston even though she used hand sanitizer frequently and wiped her space down. She believes flu particles lingering in the cabin carpet entered her system when she removed her shoes mid-flight.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Germs Lurk on Touch Screens and Buttons

A study by Emirates Airlines found seat-back touch screens and media control buttons contained infectious staph and strep bacteria. Armrest buttons and tray table releases also harbored high levels of potentially-dangerous microbes.
It’s no wonder these high-touch surfaces become so filthy. Hundreds of passengers touch them during every flight. Fingertips carry germs that transfer easily to smooth surfaces ideal for microbial survival and growth.

Gary adheres to a strict “no contact” policy after contracting pinkeye he attributes to a dirty in-flight touch screen. Now he uses a tissue or sanitizing wipe as a barrier for necessary interactions like adjusting the screen angle or connecting headphones. For non-essential touches, Gary just avoids contact altogether.

But germ-avoidant expert Rachel Z still caught a nasty cold after a transcontinental flight even though she followed similar precautions. Mid-flight, her 4 year old grew restless and played games on the seat-back screen without using wipes. His unwashed hands no doubt transferred whatever pathogens lurked there directly to his face and mouth. Within days, his daycare cold took hold of Rachel as well.
Some airlines have taken steps to reduce touch screen microbe levels using antimicrobial materials and UV disinfecting wands between flights. However effectiveness varies greatly by airline, specific sterilization method, and how frequently applied. Passengers have no visibility into these procedures on their particular flight.
Frequent business traveler Gary avoids reliance on touch screens altogether. He packs sanitizing wipes to quickly clean his personal cell phone screen and headphones. For in-flight entertainment, he loads his phone or tablet with movies downloaded prior to departure rather than risk using the dirty shared screens.

Germs on a Plane: The Top 5 Filthiest Places on an Aircraft - Armrests are Teeming with Microbes

At first glance, the plastic armrests dividing airplane seats may not seem like a major germ concern. But a closer look at these utilitarian partitions reveals handprints, food stains, and mystery liquids - evidence of heavy use by hundreds of passengers.

According to microbiology experts, the combination of porous surfaces and continual handling creates ideal conditions for pathogen accumulation and growth. A study published in Clinical Microbiology found epidemic MRSA bacteria on 6% of tested armrests across flights from five major airlines. Other researchers swabbed surfaces on transcontinental routes and isolated drug-resistant Enterococcus faecalis bacteria as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) on armrests.

Frequent flyer Marie won't even consider resting her arms on these dubious germ havens anymore after contracting MRSA from what she suspects was an armrest. "I remember the armrest felt slightly damp, which really grossed me out at the time," she said. A few days post-flight, an ominous rash developed that was diagnosed as MRSA. Luckily, antibiotics knocked out the infection before it became severe. Now Marie travels with a scarf to wrap the armrests in and avoids any direct contact.
For one unlucky family, an armrest was definitely the culprit behind their shared misery. The Browns were flying home to Minneapolis after a beach vacation when all four came down with norovirus illness within 48 hours. The explosive vomiting and diarrhea lasted nearly a week, requiring IV fluids and Zofran injections to get through. Discussing their ordeal later, the only common surface all four touched was the tightly-shared armrest between the two middle seats. One of the kids likely introduced norovirus to the armrest early in the flight, facilitating spread to the whole family by flight's end.

Even vigilant hand-washers and sanitize-ers aren't fully protected from germy armrests. Rachel Z follows strict hand hygiene and gifted her preschooler hand sanitizer spray before a flight from Los Angeles to Denver. However, mid-flight she glanced over to see her young son happily snacking on Goldfish crackers he'd picked up off the armrest after dropping them. "There's just no way I can fully control what germs he's exposed to and ingesting," she lamented. Within days, a nasty respiratory infection hit their whole family.

Some passengers have resorted to creative armrest protection solutions. Gary packs a beach towel on flights solely to cover the armrests around him "like a protective moat." Frequent flyer Marie totes antibacterial wipes and gives armrests a thorough pre-flight scrub-down - much to the annoyance of seated aisle neighbors.

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