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Communicable Disease: Germs Fly

It was a gloomy Tuesday afternoon in the autumn of 2006 when a New England-based research team published conclusions from an investigation of airlines’ effect on Flu season in the United States. The Harvard and MIT investigators found correlations between data sets, but skeptics argued the report was insufficient to “prove” anything. The debate begins, does air travel actually increase the global risk of infectious disease spread?

We’ve seen, and maybe used, the white bags from the seatback pocket in front of you. One is likely being used inflight as you read this. The ill passenger may be experiencing symptoms of motion sickness, but diagnosis with certainty--on the spot--does not fall within the job description of a flight attendant. So then, what if the passenger is ill from Norovirus or Ebola? Common Sense: Germs Survive on Airplane Surfaces, but for how long? Whether the symptom is caused by routine turbulence, or something more sinister, nausea often comes paired with sweats, coughs and dirty hands. In addition, people sometimes forget manners and common courtesy over the course of a long flight. So, logically there’s a very high likelihood an earlier passenger’s germs are left behind on the tray table, armrests, or in-seat controls.

According to a 2014 study from Auburn University, pathogens survive up to 168 hours (seven days) on surfaces, specifically in an untreated airplane cabin. An in-service aircraft visits at least four domestic, or two international destinations per day. Using the conclusions from the Auburn study as our assumptions:


Without routine hygiene protocols, you board with as many as 30 unique passengers' germs potentially lingering in your seat area. Norovirus can survive several weeks and tuberculosis several months. (For now, it is recommended you travel with your own disinfecting wipes.) Do People Really Fly when they're Sick?

Umm...yes. If you're away on a business trip and start to not feel well, do you postpone your flight home and incur the additional travel expenses (flight cancellation fee, extended hotel stay, etc.)? If you said yes, you're a hero, but you're in the minority.

Most travelers would prefer to keep to themselves, remain on the flight as scheduled, and endure the misery in their own beds. According to The Guardian, between 500,000 and 2 million people are the sky at any one time. Around 6 million individuals travel by commercial air each day. It is reasonable to deduce some of these individuals are contagious, repeating the pattern a number of times every day.

Sanitation Standards

Sneezing, coughing, sweating, nausea and general grossness occur on every aircraft every day. Airlines are kind enough and cognizant enough to provide disposable motion sickness bags. However, cognition fades when the bag is disposed of and speculation arises that airlines play a direct role in the way infectious diseases spread around the world.

Unlike restaurants in airport terminals, neither industry standards nor mandates exist to prevent the spread of infectious disease on planes. Neither routine monitoring nor random inspection/enforcement of aircraft hygiene ever occurs. Airlines pick up trash and "wipe down surfaces" between flights because they know passengers will complain about a visible mess. Is this disinfecting? Unfortunately no, this is just for aesthetics. Worse, the same rag is often used for the whole aircraft, efficiently spreading those germs to the corners furthest from where they started. International Infection Prevention

Aviation and medical authorities across the globe unilaterally recommend disinfection of surfaces after a known contamination event, so it is widely understood that these surfaces can likely spread disease. Unfortunately most contamination events go unreported, and no disinfection occurs. Routine disinfection on a daily basis would conceivably provide protection to business and leisure travelers, domestically and internationally. Some recent horror stories:

This installment points out only a few common sensical, logic-based truths about germs and airplanes. My next installment will aim to nail down some red-handed evidence. Thanks for reading! If you believe airline passengers deserve a hygienic onboard environment, and/or you are hungry for more information on the subject, please refer to the Change.org petition "Require Airlines to Disinfect the Plane".

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