Life gets pretty exhausting if you’re always afraid of getting dirty. I try to remember this mantra when I fly because aeroplanes are so freaking filthy. Research from the University of Victoria suggests we’re 100 times more likely to catch a cold from air travel than “normal daily ground level experience”. Here’s how to stay relatively sanitary (and sane) on planes.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Wipe Down Everything
TravelMath.com sent a microbiologist to collect bacteria samples from aeroplanes to see which spots were the filthiest. Based on the samples, they estimated the number of bacteria per square inch of various spots, including seat belts, air vents and toilet handles.
Tray tables were by far the most bacteria-ridden spots on a plane, with over 2000 colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria per square inch (by comparison, your mobile phone has about 27 CFUs per square inch). If that isn’t enough to convince you, one flight attendant told the Huffington Post that tray tables are usually only cleaned once a day, when the aircraft “RONs” (remains overnight). HuffPost contributor and active flight attendant Sara Keagle chimed in:
I saw more dirty diapers laid out on those trays than food. And those trays, yeah, never saw them cleaned or sanitised once.
Oh, good. So if you’re going to use your tray table to eat, work or nap, you might want to, you know, wipe it down. Bring some travel-sized antibacterial wipes in your carry-on and wipe down the seat pockets, entertainment screens and in-flight magazines while you’re at it. Drexel Medicine estimates these are some of the germiest spots on planes. Also, a study from Auburn University found that bacteria like staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can survive for days on different aeroplane surfaces, including armrests and window shades.
Book an Early Morning Flight
If you want your aeroplane to be as clean as possible, you might want to consider booking an early morning flight.
Travel + Leisure asked different airlines about their cleaning policies. Most confirmed that they schedule “a more thorough scrub” which includes wiping down seats and tray tables with disinfectant when the plane remains at an airport overnight.
That means first-thing-in-the-morning flights will likely be a lot cleaner than flights later in the day or at night, says T+L. Similarly, Keagle says blankets and pillows are only freshly washed on the first flights of the day.
Bring Your Own Blanket and Pillow
I’ve always been instinctively skeeved out by the blankets and pillows airlines offer on long-haul flights, and rightfully so. As flight attendant and HuffPost blogger Sara Keagle said: “[F]reshly washed blankets are only supplied to the first flights of the day; after that they’re just folded and reused.”
That means you’re using a pillow that’s potentially crawling with drool and germs, so you might as well bring your own. I typically just bring a cardigan I can double as a blanket during the flight. That way, I can wear it through the airport and save space in my carry-on, too.
As for pillows, the Cabeau Evolution is a favourite, but here’s another option if you don’t like the bulk. Again, if you want to avoid bringing your own but you still want a fresh pillow and blanket to use, consider booking your flight as early as possible, because chances are, they’re cleaner.
Yes, Bathrooms Are Filthy
As you can probably imagine, bathrooms on aeroplanes are an absolute nightmare for germaphobes. I’ve never quite understood how people walk to the aeroplane lavatories in their socks or, worse, bare feet, because as one flight attendant told Reddit:
That’s not water on the floor in the bathroom, put your bloody shoes back on.
According to TravelMath, the toilet flush has about 265 colony-forming units per square inch, making it another germ-ridden spot on the plane. We’ve told you before, some germ-avoiding tricks just aren’t worth it, like trying to flush the toilet with your foot. As long as you wash your hands on the way out, you’ll be fine. Of course, the lavatory door latch is most likely covered in germs, too, so even webMD suggests the old paper towel on the doorknob trick. Take a towel, open the door, then toss it on your way out.
Obviously, every good germaphobe comes armed with hand sanitiser, so stock up on the Purell, too.