Staying healthy while travelling is often hard, and nobody wants to get sick on holiday or when coming back to daily life at home. But are aircraft the fetid incubators of colds and flu that we all think? Well, yes and no. Most people think that the air inside an aircraft cabin is laden with bacteria and viruses, but actually, it tends to be cleaner than you might imagine.
Most modern aircraft use high-tech HEPA-type filtering systems that scrub the nasties out of the air, which is run through the system very frequently. Airplane-makers love to throw around terms like “hospital grade” for these systems, and the bottom line is that the air itself is pretty clean.
As we learned earlier this week, flying does dehydrate you, not least because the air is dehumidified and pressurised. As anyone who has lived in or holidayed at high-altitude places like Denver, the Alps or Kathmandu will know, dry air dries out your nasal passages, making it harder for your body’s natural defences (like those little hairs in your nose and — hope you’re not eating lunch! — mucus) to filter out bacteria and viruses.
It’s a lack of humidity, the fact that you’re in close proximity to a whole lot of other people, and the fact that humans can be relied upon to fail to wash their hands. Planes are cleaned relatively regularly, though it can be a little perfunctory during the shorter gaps between the arrival of one flight and the departure of the next.
Overall, planes aren’t really much worse than public spaces, like a local bus, metro, cinema or restaurant in your home city — although that probably says more about all those places too. One of the most fascinatingly disgusting bits of science around aviation I’ve seen in quite a while comes from Germfalcon, a company that makes a UV-C-light-cleaning robot that rolls up and down the aisles of a plane to disinfect it.
To highlight just how dirty airline cabins are, the Germfalcon folks ran some medical swabs around the seats and incubated them in Petri dishes. Surprise! The germiest part of the plane was the headrest of the aisle seat, which everyone grabs as they go past. And they probably haven’t washed their hands properly in those tiny airplane lavatories — but no more or less so than in any other transport or public setting, to be honest.
The trick is to avoid touching those high-contact places, or if you do to wash your hands thoroughly and/or to sanitise them afterwards.
Many travellers swear by alcohol-based hand gel, although make sure you get one with a screw-on lid so it doesn’t pop open all over the inside of your bag. For that reason, I tend to find that disinfectant hand wipes are more convenient and come with the added bonus that you can use them for a quick wipe-down of the tray table, armrest, screen and remote control afterwards.
My top tip: keep your hands to yourself as you make your way to and from your seat, wash them thoroughly, give them a wipe-down in the meantime, and use the rest of your wipe to de-germ the space around you.
John Walton is an international aviation journalist. Over the next weeks, he will answer the questions you’ve always wanted to ask about the whys and wherefores of travelling by air on Lonely Planet News. He welcomes questions and further discussions on Twitter (@thatjohn) and via email to firstname.lastname@example.org