Dirty Airline Secrets: Where Germs Live in Planes

Studies confirm what you already suspected: An airplane is a dirty place. But you might be surprised at just how unhygienic they can really be.

By Beth Levine

Ready for some airline confidential? Plane travel today is stressful enough what with rigorous security screenings, long waits, and cancelled, crowded or delayed flights. You might want to get a plane barf bag ready, however, for this exposé on the microscopic indignities: questionable airplane hygiene.

Germs on a Plane

A recent study from Auburn University confirmed that certain surfaces inside planes are more "bacteria sticky" than others. Researchers collected old airplane parts and tested how long Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (the dreaded MRSA) and E. Coli can survive on common plane surfaces such as the armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather. They found that MRSA, a potentially deadly infection, can last for an entire week on material from the seat-back pocket. And E. coli, which can lead to severe anemia and kidney failure, is able to survive for four days on the material from the armrest. Porous surfaces, such as cloth material, are an especially hospitable environment for germs, they found.

“The problem in the cabin is you have such a restricted, densely populated place,” says lead author Kiril Vaglenov, PhD, Auburn University Department of Biological Sciences, Alabama.

But before you decide to never fly again, airlines claim that they have rigorous and regular cleaning schedules. For example, My-Linh Bui, a spokesperson for American Airlines, reports “Our staff works diligently to keep its aircraft as clean as possible with significant multi-stage cleaning processes:”

Daily: Crews clean each plane thoroughly during its overnight stay at an airport, including removing and replacing all used blankets and pillows.

Deep cleaning: Each aircraft is given a deep cleaning every 30 days, on average, using FAA- and EPA-approved cleaning agents.

Ultra-cleaning: Every 18 months to two years, an airplane goes into a heavy maintenance check, based on hours of flight time.

Your defense plan: 

Dr. Vaglenov reassures, “We are not trying to scare the public about airplanes. We are exposed to this kind of bacterial challenge everywhere such as in hospitals, movie theaters and daycare facilities. Be conscious about hand hygiene and don’t travel when you are contagious or immuno-compromised.” Also:

  • Use alcohol wipes to clean off tray tables and lavatory surfaces. (The super-duper toilet flushes spray contaminants everywhere, so surfaces quickly become dirty even if they started out clean.)
  • Don’t put your hands in the seat pockets.

Air Quality 

Approximately 50 percent of the cabin air is outside air and 50 percent is HEPA-filtered recirculation air. So why does it so often seem that you get sick a few days after a plane flight? According to Douglas Walkinshaw, Ph.D., Indoor Air Technologies Inc., Ottawa, ON, Canada, airborne disease is transmitted more easily on a plane than in most other environments because:

  • The ventilation rate (the amount of air individuals are getting) in planes is low. The amount of times that cabin air changes per hour is high, not because each person is getting a lot of fresh or HEPA-filtered air, but because the aircraft cabin volume is so small and there are many people in it.
  • Many people from different locales, breathing out different pathogens, are crowded together in a relatively small space.
  • The exposure period is relatively long.
  • Flu viruses can be more potent at low humidity, and aircraft cabin humidity is much lower than most environments.

Ironically, the smoking bans have made cabin air quality worse. “When smoking was allowed, passenger airlines brought in twice the amount of outdoor air per person that they do today," which means, nowadays, there is twice the amount of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide (both are naturally produced by the human body) in airplane cabins, says Dr. Walkinshaw. "This could exacerbate the onset of certain illnesses." Also, HEPA-filtered air is ‘cleaned’ with respect to germs, but not with respect to gases.

Your defense plan:

The best way to protect yourself is by wearing a tight-fitting filter mask. Not much for masks? Use your seat's personal comfort features to keep you safer: Blow pathogens away by directing the personal air vent above your head, if there is one, between you and one of your neighbors. “This airflow will carry germs towards the floor where the air is exhausted in most aircrafts. Do not direct this flow at your face, as it will draw all neighbors’ germs into your breathing zone,” says Dr. Walkinshaw.

Water Quality

Here’s something that might turn your stomach: In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that all aircraft public/potable water systems failed to meet national primary drinking water regulations. In a second round of testing shortly thereafter, 17.2 percent of 169 randomly selected passenger aircraft carried water contaminated with total coliform bacteria. (For the uninitiated, total coliform is a group of mostly harmless bacteria that live in soil, water, and human and animal waste, says EPA. It's an indicator of water quality.) The EPA instituted changes with the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, which went into compliance in 2011.  So all is hunky-dory, now, right? Yes…ish.

“EPA is largely satisfied with the steps airlines have taken to comply with the rule, but continues to work with the industry to ensure that the health of passengers and crew are protected,” says Liz Purchia, EPA press secretary. That said, she also noted that from October 2011 to July 2013, 6.3 percent of routine samples tested positive for total coliforms and 0.2 percent tested positive for E. coli. “It's important to note that the presence of total coliforms is not generally harmful,"  says Purchia, but it's an indicator that fecal contamination could occur, if bad water enters the water distribution system through leaks, cracks, faulty seals or other breaches.

Your defense plan:

Aircrewhealth.com, recommends:

  • If you have any concerns, don’t drink any water that doesn't come in a bottle or can. That includes tea, coffee or mixed drinks, which are made with the plane’s water.
  • Ask if the ice is supplied by a caterer or if the aircraft has an ice-maker aboard — only accept caterer ice.
  • Wash your hands with soap in the lavatories, but give a little extra clean with alcohol-based sanitizers afterwards.
  • If you brush your teeth in an aircraft lavatory, use bottled water to wet your brush, and to rinse your mouth.

 

Comments

You buy several bottles of water AFTER you go through TSA security check! Or if you trust your local airport or city water supply, you bring your EMPTY water bottles through TSA security and fill them from a bottle filling drinking fountain inside the security zone!

fbradley@verizon.net on 2014-06-12 09:05:12

You cannot bring your own drinks from home and board an airplane. They are confiscated at the Security checkpoint. (Who thought up this idea??) I liked the article up until this point. Scary, though.

pwall@peds.uab.edu on 2014-06-12 08:17:27

Interesting article, but this suggestion casts a shadow of doubt over the whole article: "Bring your own drinks from home." Clearly, the author hasn't actually boarded a plane in many years.

sueb262 on 2014-06-12 07:40:01

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