What are the chances of contracting an illness on an airplane?
Airlines are more scared than you. And have prepared accordingly.
According to one survey, more than a quarter of Australians (26%) named contracting an illness on the plane as one of their greatest flying fears. A further 11% specifically named airplane toilets one of the scariest things on the plane.
But are those really justified fears? It depends on what exactly you're scared of.
The bad news is that air travel is a great way of transmitting infectious disease. The good news is that airlines are even more scared of it than you, and they're the ones who design and clean the planes.
One study, published in The Lancet, took a good look at how diseases actually spread on planes.
Those travel fear myths debunked
Myth: Re-circulated air spreads disease
One of the main fears is that you're sharing air with hundreds of strangers for hours on end, and that one sick person can spread it around to everyone. This is completely true.
But that's why commercial aircraft tend to use high-grade filters for their ventilation systems which clean the air with every re-circulation, unlike your average classroom, office building or public transport air con. On airplanes, re-circulation is your friend, and the more it circulates the safer it is. Faster circulation has been closely tied to a lower chance of contracting illnesses.
This means that your chances of getting sick on a plane are all about your proximity to the sick person. The sweet spot for infectious diseases is usually within two rows of a contagious passenger, for more than eight hours. Outside of this you're pretty safe. There are no guarantees though. One of the people who contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during the outbreak was seated 7 rows away from the carrier.
You'll probably be pleased to know that re-circulation on passenger planes also tends to be quite fast, with about 15 to 20 air changes per hour compared to 12 in the typical office building. If there's airborne disease on the loose, an airplane is actually a great place to be as long as you're not stuck next to it.
The filters have to keep running though. If they don't then it's a terrible place to be. In one instance, a plane full of passengers was caught up in an influenza outbreak when their plane was delayed on the tarmac without the ventilation running.
Are airplane bathrooms particularly filthy?
If you use the bathroom right after someone has sneezed MERS all over it you naturally have an increased chance of taking it in, such as through sneeze droplets on the tap which you transfer to your hands, and later on your food.
But before taking off, airplane bathrooms are subject to some very strict cleaning. Unlike your tray table. Which you eat off.
As you can imagine, putting down and disinfecting every single tray table after a flight isn't always feasible.
Ironically, the air vents themselves also tend to be one of the filthier spots on the plane, as successive passengers adjust them to satisfaction. They're blowing nice clean air, but the vents themselves might be fairly filthy.
If you're worried about unclean surfaces on a plane, forget the toilet seat. Instead, disinfect your overhead vents, the bathroom locks, seatbelt buckles and tray tables. By microbe population, these are all some of the dirtiest places on a plane. Unsurprisingly they all change hands frequently, and would often go without cleaning.
How to not get sick on a plane
- Get travel vaccinations. These are for your destination as much as the plane ride. After all, you'll be flying there and back with plenty of other people who live or visit that country.
- Be mindful of the tray table. If you'd feel like too much of a hypochondriac disinfecting it yourself, you can at least be mindful. It's called a tray table, not a food table.
- Stay away from sick people. There's nothing rude about asking if you can get a seat away from a sick person, but if the flight's full it might not be possible. There are some ways to improve your chances of free seats though. If there are free seats, you have places to move to.
And if you don't want to be patient zero, then maybe consider travel insurance that covers cancellation. If you have to cancel or delay your flights due to unexpected illnesses or injury, these policies may be able to help.