It's an open secret that airplanes, and airports, are some of the germiest places you visit. From the bins you put your carry-ons in to the seatback pocket, flying exposes you to more germs and pathogens than you might expect.
Website TravelMath conducted a study in 2011 that found most high touch surfaces in airports and on airplanes are dirtier than your home. While Canadian Broadcasting Company show "Marketplace" did a 2018 examination of the dirtiest surfaces on an airplane after taking samples from 18 planes from three major Canadian airlines.
The results from each study vary but they picked up enough bacteria (including E. coli) to convince you to wipe down these germy surfaces:
The "Marketplace" study found the headrest to be the germiest surface on the airplanes tested. Along with aerobic bacteria, testers found evidence of E. coli on headrests. Skin cells and bacteria from your head, coat, or hat are transferred to the headrest and for aisle seats, people will often place their hands on the headrest to balance themselves. While it's hard to avoid using them, give the headrest a good wipe down before putting your head on it. You should also avoid placing your face and hands on it.
Think about the kinds of things you put into a seatback pocket. Banana peels, old water bottles, used tissues—basically any trash you don't want to hold in your hand ends up in a seatback pocket. Flight attendants have also reported seeing used tampons and dirty diapers in seatback pockets! That considered, it's no surprise that the pocket is one of the germiest surfaces on the airplane. "Marketplace" found evidence of E. coli, mold, and aerobic bacteria. Because the pockets are so deep, it can be difficult to clean yourself. As such, it's best to avoid using them if possible, if you do, use hand sanitizer after retrieving what you need or be sure to keep your hands away from your mouth and face.
Amazingly, the tray tables on planes carry nearly 10 times as much bacteria as the lavatory flush button, according to the TravelMath study. The "Marketplace" study also found evidence of mold and other bacteria. Luckily, tray tables are very easy to wipe down. Make sure to clean any part of the tray table you may be touching along with the seatback screen (if there is one).
Water Fountain Button
This was the next germiest of surfaces tested in the TravelMath study, with about half as much bacteria as tray tables. If you or your kids are going to use the water fountain in the airport, consider covering the button with a facial tissue or using hand sanitizer immediately afterward.
Overhead Air Vent
After wiping down your tray table, give the overhead air vent some attention. Passengers are constantly reaching up to adjust the airflow and temperature and like any vent, they can get incredibly dusty.
Lavatory Flush Button
While it may surprise you that this wasn't the germiest place of all, it still deserves attention. If the button must be press, wipe it down beforehand, or wash your hand well after using the bathroom.
Everyone touches the seatbelt buckle several times during a flight, so it makes sense that it picks up bacteria.
Bathroom Stall Lock
The same goes for the lavatory lock. Every time you touch one, you need to wash your hands or use the sanitizer. Especially since almost 20 percent of passengers don't wash their hands after using the bathroom.
What to Do About These Germy Surfaces
When traveling through the airport, do your best to avoid touching your face and mouth without washing your hands or using hand sanitizer first. It can seem like a hassle but you should also make sure to wash your hands again before eating at an airport restaurant.
Once you find your seat, use a disinfecting wipe (anything that can kill bacteria and viruses will work) to clean down any smooth surfaces starting with the tray table. After wiping down the tray table you can turn your attention to buckles and armrests. For planes with plastic seatback pockets, and leather or pleather seats, you can also give those surfaces a wipedown. Don't forget to use hand sanitizer after you're done.
In the wake of COVID-19, many U.S. airlines are taking more aggressive cleaning measures to combat the spread of contagions. It's likely that bacteria counts on the above surfaces are much lower now, but it doesn't hurt to keep a packet of wipes and some hand sanitizer on you.
Concerned about germs when you travel? Here are 6 things to disinfect in your hotel room and 9 common-sense ways to avoid getting sick on a cruise.