After the Ebola scare of 2015, it's no wonder that people would worry about being trapped on a potentially germ-filled tube with a bunch of anonymous travelers, some of whom don't bother to cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze (and may be, for all we know, carriers of some horrible diseases). So I've been pleasantly surprised to notice on recent cross-country flights a definite increase in the number of people wearing surgical masks. But it turns out that when it comes to health risks on planes, air quality is just about the last thing we should be worried about.
The truth is that on most planes, the cabin air is completely replaced with fresh air from outside every two or three minutes (far more frequently than the air in your office building or, for that matter, your home). In addition, that air is run through High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which remove more than 99% of bacteria, viruses, and other scary stuff. Newer planes have additional technology that increase the filtration to 100%.
Don't Touch That. Actually, Don't Touch Anything
The air in the cabin is clean, but when it comes to health risks, everything else in the cabin in a horror story. So, rather than a surgical mask, you'd be better off investing your money in surgical gloves. Planes used for short trips may do as many as eight trips per day. Those used for cross-country flights may do only two. Planes are usually "cleaned" between flights, but that "cleaning" typically consists of picking up newspapers, replacing old or torn in-flight magazines, and possibly pulling trash out of seatback pockets. The most germ-infested places may not be disinfected for weeks or months. Those include seat pockets, tray tables, window shades, armrests, seatbelts, headrests (especially those on the aisle seats, since they get touched by the most people), the toilet flushing lever or button and the handle inside the restroom. How big a problem is it? Consider this:
- Seat-back pockets are sometimes stuffed with used tissues and airsick bags and other stuff you wouldn't want on your hands. Researchers at Auburn University just completed a two-year study to determine how long six types of bacteria, including e-coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), would survive on commonly touched surfaces on airplanes. On material from seatback pockets, MRSA survived 168 hours (7 days). On armrests, e-coli survived 96 hours (4 days)
- Researchers at the University of Arizona did a similar study and found that 60% of tray tables tested positive for MRSA (which can be fatal). Tray tables are rarely cleaned, and there's no way of telling what kinds of things have come in contact with the surface. Since it's been more than 20 years and the statute of limitations has (hopefully) passed, I will admit to that I once changed my infant daughter's diaper on a tray table--and I know I'm not the only one. Just to have a reference point, Jonathan Sexton, who led the UA study, found MRSA on only 11% of samples taken from the New York City subway.
- The website Travelmath.com found that those tray tables were 195% more likely to be romping grounds for bacteria than your average cell phone, which according a Which? Magazine study, provide homes for 18 times more germs than your average toilet.
What Can You Do?
One possible solution is to never fly again and make better use of Skype and Google hangouts. But that's not going to be practical for most people. So we suggest that you do the following when traveling--and that you have anyone you're traveling with do the same.
- Carry hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes with you and carefully wipe down the armrest, headrest, and tray table.
- Use hand sanitizer before you eat.
- Use a tissue or some other disposable item to flush toilets, twist overhead airflow vents, and open lavatory doors.
- Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Keep your hands out of seat pockets and try not to touch other people's seats as you walk by.
- Don't touch airline blankets or pillows even if they're in plastic bags. Bring your own instead or use a jacket.
- Use the bathroom in the terminal before your board. If you have to go on the plane, try to do it as early in the flight as possible. Lavatories are rarely cleaned during flights.