Protect Yourself from Germs When You Fly

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
June 08, 2015

Bring a packet of sanitary wipes.

People worry about the air inside a plane, but the real problems are elsewhere: the chair upholstery, the tray table, the armrests, and the toilet handle. Dangerous bacteria can live on those surfaces for up to a week, a team of microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University in Alabama reported after a two-year study.

Tray tables had the highest levels of bacteria, the team found.

The researchers didn’t actually test planes. Instead, they asked Delta Airlines for samples of six different materials commonly used on planes, including a plastic tray table, a metal toilet flush, the cloth used in seat pockets, a plastic window shade, a rubber armrest, and seat leather used in upgraded seats.

Next they applied two types of bacteria, E. coli and staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to the six surfaces, recreated the humidity and temperature normally inside the cabin and watched for results. E. coli, known for causing illness when consumed in food, survived for 96 hours on an armrest. MRSA, a type of antibiotic resistant staph bacteria which can cause skin and other infections, survived for 168 hours on material from a seat back packet.

That doesn’t mean you must stay away from air travel. Both of these bacteria are common in our environment and don’t necessarily make you sick when you encounter them. MRSA can linger much longer on other surfaces. Also, the low humidity on airplanes makes it harder for many germs to survive.

Airlines do clean the planes, but the government doesn’t regulate how often or inspect the planes. Industry watchers report a rule of thumb to wipe down an aircraft completely after every 30 days of service or 100 flying hours. Many airlines wipe down seats and tray tables whenever a plane spends a night on ground. This means that a plane is cleanest on early-morning flights and dirtiest during red-eyes.

The team plans to study how long tuberculosis bacteria can survive in airplane conditions and the best way to keep plane travel sanitary, perhaps by incorporating anti-bacterial materials into the surfaces.

Meanwhile, you can protect yourself. Some simple strategies:

  • Use hand-sanitizers before you eat and after you use the bathroom.
  • Bring a pack of disinfectant wipes and wipe off the armrest and tray-table when you sit down.
  • Bring your own neck pillow and launder it after a flight.
  • Bring tissues and use one to open bathroom doorknobs and touch metal toilet flushes. (But don’t freak each time you flush. MRSA actually disappeared fastest from the metal toilet flush).
  • Irrigate your nose with saline nasal solution or mist.
  • Don’t touch your eyes – tear ducts are a primary transmission route for germs into the nose and throat.
  • Remove contact lens before flying, to prevent dry eyes, and be sure you don’t need to remove them during the flight.
  • Get as much sleep as you can, before the flight and during it, as sleep boosts your immune system.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water and avoid coffee or black tea, which are dehydrating and could keep you awake.
  • Avoid alcohol both in the airport and on board, since alcohol is also dehydrating and could make you wake up later if it puts you to sleep.
  • Look for an empty seat elsewhere if people near you are visibly coughing or sneezing.
  • Don’t eat cooked food that isn’t hot. Ideally, bring your own food.
  • Don’t close your vent – fresh air can help clear germs out of your area.
  • Choose early-morning flights and avoid red-eyes.


March 20, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN