flickr/Cory W. Watts
flickr/Cory W. Watts

Given the number of people sleeping, eating, and breathing on flights every day, it’s not surprising that airplane cabins are a cesspool of germs. Add the short-staffed flight crew, who is under pressure to offload and reload passengers quickly, and there is little time for the kind of proper clean-up needed to remove those germs before the next departure. According to a Wall Street Journal report, airplanes get lightly cleaned overnight, and they only undergo a deep cleaning every 30 days — meaning those germy microbes can continue to multiply for up to a month.

Here are the five places passengers should be most wary of on a flight:

1. The Seatback Pocket
Think about it. What do you put into a seatback pocket? Likely things like old water bottles, used tissues (ew!), and food wrappers. Seatback pockets are also the go-to repository for airsickness bags. That’s why you should think twice about using the pocket to store food or beverages. Also, realize that the stuff that’s already in there when you get on the plane (the magazine and safety instructions) may be riddled with bacteria, too.


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2. The Tray Table
A website called TravelMath recently hired a microbiologist to take microbe samples from various spots around the plane (the seatback pocket wasn’t included). The scientist was looking for the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch. The more units, the dirtier the surface. Of the places sampled, the germiest was the tray table, with 2,155 CFUs per square inch. Compare that to the 172 CFU average found on the average household toilet seat or the 27 CFU found on cell phones.

3. The Seatbelt Buckle
While the 230 CFUs found on seatbelt buckles might seem small in comparison to tray tables, that is still more than what is on your toilet seat. Since you probably wouldn’t want to eat food off your toilet (unless you have some odd habits), you’ll want to sanitize your hands before touching food after you buckle-up.

4. The Overhead Air Vent
When the TravelMath microbiologist tackled the overhead air vent button, it measured in at 285 CFUs. That’s not even taking into account the microbes that may be running through the ventilation system, which spews re-circulated air. That said, you might be better off avoiding the vent altogether.

5. The Lavatory
This one is a no-brainer. Consider the outside and inside doorknobs, the lock, the flush panel, and whatever else is in there. Knowing the nature of the loo in general, it does makes one question the mental health of those who use said privies to join the Mile-High Club.

So what’s the germaphobic traveler to do?

1. Get a seatback organizer that fits into the pocket and put your stuff inside that. Wash the organizer when you get home. Short of that, line the seatback pocket with a plastic bag.

2. Buy a tray table guard or fashion your own out of a piece of fabric. One company claims to have a product made with patented copper and ion technology that actively attacks harmful microbes on the table.

3. Wash your hands frequently. If you can’t wash, douse yourself with hand sanitizer (you might also want to bring along hand lotion, as the alcohol in the sanitizer is quite dehydrating).

4. Use a tissue to open and close the lavatory door and lock, and always wash after flushing.

5. Consider bringing a magic wand. Battery-operated ultra-violet sanitizing wands eradicate micro-organisms with a zap of light. Your seat mates may think you are crazy as you wave the wand over the tray table and into the seatback pocket. Let them laugh. Better yet, offer to do the wave over their germy parts and make new friends.

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