What are the dirtiest places on a plane?


It doesn’t matter whether you’re a frequent flyer or just jet off once a year for a holiday, air travel can pose quite a test for most immune systems.

A Journal of Environmental Health Research study published in 2004 showed that you’re more likely to catch a cold on a plane than on other transport like buses or trains.

This is said to be attributed to the very dry cabin air, fatigue, close proximity of other travelers and the small amount of cabin air space per person on a flight which creates a hotbed of airborne microbes being spread.

What are the dirtiest places on a plane?

The online trip calculator Travelmath commissioned a study to find out which parts of the plane are most like to carry high levels of bacteria and the results may not come as much of a surprise.

To measure the levels of bacteria on surfaces, a microbiologist took 26 sample swabs from four US airports and four flights by two major airlines which gave a result in the form of colony-forming units (CFU).

Top 6 most contaminated places:

1. Tray Table – 2,155 CFU/sq. in.

2. Drinking fountain buttons – 1,240 CFU/sq.in.

3. Overhead air vents - 285 CFU/sq.in.

4. Lavatory flush buttons - 265 CFU/sq.in.

5. Seatbelt buckles - 230 CFU/sq.in.

6. Bathroom stall locks - 70 CFU/sq.in.

Perhaps it’s not too much of a shock that the list contains many high traffic, shared areas but the level of bacterial contamination found on the tray table may be a cause for concern given that this is most commonly used to eat from.

The increasingly short turnaround times that airlines have to clean up after passengers have alighted and before the next departure might mean that high risk areas like flush buttons and stall locks will be given more attention than areas like the tray tables which might seem less important.

With passenger planes carrying an average of 400 customers per flight, it’s easy to see how air vents can become contaminated thanks to the low proportion of air space per passenger and bacteria thriving in the dry humidity of the cabin air.

Other areas to consider

Before you even arrive at the gate you could be at risk of catching an infection as studies have shown that the trays for collecting shoes and bags at the X-ray machines are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria and even fecal matter.

As well as your tray table, the in-flight safety card might be contaminated as this is handled by just about everyone who travels on the plane and is unlikely to be wiped clean.  These cards can be printed on antimicrobial paper to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

If you’re not travelling light then your suitcase could be another carrier of bacteria as they are handled by multiple people, from baggage handlers to taxi drivers to hotel staff, as well as being wheeled across all kinds of indoor and outdoor flooring.

Reduce the risk of catching an infection

The best way of making sure you don’t catch any unwanted bugs on a flight is by making sure that you practice good hygiene.

Basic things like washing your hands before eating or after using the toilet can help to stop the spread of harmful pathogens to other surfaces.

If you’re concerned about the cleanliness of your immediate surroundings like you could use an antibacterial wipe to clean down the tray table, armrests and seatbelt fastenings which are high traffic areas used by hundreds of people per day.

What are your top tips for more hygienic flying?

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