In the battle against in-flight germs, Arlene Sheff has had a few casualties. Whenever she flies, Sheff, a consultant and former meeting planner for Boeing, wears a personal air purifier around her neck. Over the years, she has burned out several of the devices, which can cost $60 or more to replace.
“I am concerned about the air in the airplane,” she said. “I don’t know if it exactly prevents you from getting germs, but I wear it as a precaution.”
The device isn’t the only tool in Sheff’s box. She also travels with antibacterial wipes to swab down the armrest, tray table, window shade and anywhere else she might touch.
“I even wipe off the seat belt connector,” she said. As an added precaution, she brings her own blanket and pillow, and, when she travels with her young granddaughter, a polka-dot cover to put over the seat.
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“You do everything you can to prevent it, but you don’t know exactly what works,” she said.
Sheff has plenty of company these days. With flu season approaching, not to mention the reports of Ebola’s spread, passengers might find themselves wondering if they are effectively floating in a petri dish at 40,000 feet.
The answer, medical experts say, is for the most part no, though there are some common-sense measures travelers can take. The biggest risk is not in the air passengers breathe, but in the surfaces they touch.
Garth Ehrlich, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Drexel University, said that even a little hand sanitizer could go a long way. “Surfaces can get contaminated,” he said. “It generally tends to be surfaces that are touched by people with their hands,” he said, like tray tables and buttons on the armrests.
In experiments using real aircraft seat components and bathroom fixtures, researchers at Auburn University replicated the temperature and humidity of a plane cabin in-flight and found that MRSA and E. coli bacteria can live for days on these surfaces.
“We all wonder how safe it is,” said James M. Barbaree, a microbiologist and professor at Auburn who directed the study. “Yes, there are bacteria that are pathogenic that will be on airplanes.”
The bacteria were more easily transferred from nonporous surfaces like plastic tray tables and metal toilet flush buttons, but lived longer on porous surfaces like seats.
Nonporous surfaces also are easier to clean, Barbaree said. “On porous materials, they’re hard to get to,” he said. “One of the main places we saw survival was the pocket cloth on the back of the chair.” MRSA lived for a week on the seat-back pocket, and E. coli survived on the armrest for four days.
If there is any culprit, experts say, it’s proximity. “Planes don’t make people sick; other people do,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group Corp. “Being around other people, whether it’s in the context of a jet, an airport, a hotel, that’s going to increase your likelihood of picking up something.”
Although people often suspect that the recirculated air they breathe in the cabin spreads germs, Aboulafia said that’s not the case. “It’s nothing to do with the aircraft or the way the air is treated.”
Air in a plane’s cabin is a mixture of compressed air drawn in from outside and filtered, or recirculated, air. “It all goes through HEPA filters, which are really good at getting particles,” Aboulafia said. “The objective is to filter out all particulate matter,” he added, since germs can be transmitted by hitching a ride on airborne particles.
Airlines say they have cleaning protocols in place to prevent the spread of pathogens. In response to traveler concerns about the pillows and blankets distributed in-flight, Southwest circumvents the problem by not offering them, instead inviting travelers to bring their own, and JetBlue sells them for passengers to take with them after the flight. Jennifer Dohm, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, said via email that pillows and blankets were cleaned between uses.
Cleaning crews, usually maintenance companies subcontracted by the airlines, clean the cabins in between flights and at the end of the day. In general, airplane cabins also get a deeper cleaning monthly, Aboulafia said.
“Between flights, all lavatories and galleys are cleaned and trash is removed,” Dohm said. “Each night, in addition to lavatory and galley cleaning, tray tables and armrests are wiped down and disinfected and floors are vacuumed.”
Cabins are vacuumed and bathrooms, seat covers, armrests and tray tables are cleaned after each flight, and heavier cleaning is done at night, a JetBlue Airways spokeswoman, Tamara Young, said via email. “Ad-hoc cleaning for items such as soiled seats is done on an as-needed basis,” she said.
Melissa Ford, a Southwest Airlines spokeswoman, said cabins get a daily “top-to-bottom cleaning.”
A Delta Air Lines spokesman, Morgan Durrant, said via email that its cleaning protocol follows “dozens of checklists.”
Seatmates the bigger risk
Despite travelers’ squeamishness, experts say a seatmate with a cold or other illness is a bigger risk than the armrest or tray table
. “For someone with a normal immune system, I would say that their risk is very slight,” Ehrlich said, adding that travelers could take precautions by using hand sanitizer and washing their hands well.
“I really just try not to touch too many surfaces,” said Luise Meyer, who works for a technology company. Meyer, who has an impaired immune system, said she relied on frequent hand-washing and the use of hand sanitizer in flight.
“It makes me feel better,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m a little bit in control.”
For some travelers, the germ-avoidance ritual begins even before boarding the aircraft.
“I save shower caps from hotel rooms so my feet aren’t touching anybody else’s germs that have been on the ground,” Kay Leibowitz, owner of a stationery store who flies for business a few times a year, said of her security-screening ritual
. “When I get on an airplane, I take my package of wipes and I wipe off the seats, the headrest, the armrest, the seat belt, the tray tables — anything that anybody else could have touched before me.”