No one ever assumes public transportation is clean, but just how dirty is it? That’s the question travel company, TravelMath had when they sent a team of scientists to measure how many germs could be found in a typical airplane.
“Germs are everywhere. That’s what we were told in school, but how does this connect with our everyday experiences? There is perhaps no better setting to demonstrate this than where people from around the world come together as they travel between cities, states, and countries,” TravelMath wrote on their website while introducing their findings.
If you can fit a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on bag, it might come in handy after you touch some of the dirtiest surfaces on a plane. Which part of the plane takes first place for the most germs? That would be the very place you set your food on; the tray table.
The team’s microbiologist tested the tray table and five other areas found across four planes and five airports, measuring the bacteria by the number of colony-forming units per square inch (CFU). The tray table, with 2,155 CFU/sq. in. was far and above the other five items tested.
The lavatory flush button found in the plane’s washroom, in comparison, only had 265 CFU/sq. in. The seatbelt buckle was somewhat cleaner with 230 CFU/sq. in. The overhead air vent was found to have 285 CFU/sq. in.
The dirtiest place in an airport was found to be the drinking fountain buttons where 1,240 CFU/sq. in. was detected. The bathroom stall locks were surprisingly the cleanest areas tested; only 80 FU/sq. in. were found there.
The results mean much more when these items are compared with other everyday surfaces humans come in contact with. For instance, your pet food dish usually has over 300,000 CFU/sq. in. and your kitchen counter-top likely has about 361 CFU/sq. in. While thousands of people from all around the world may use one single aircraft every day, they don’t appear to be any dirtier than our usual surroundings.
Even though many have the perception that airports and planes must be filthy with germs, TravelMath says sanitation staff work extremely hard to keep them clean.
“Bathrooms were some of the cleaner surfaces tested, which may be contrary to conventional thought. Regular cleaning schedules mean these surfaces are sanitized more frequently. This is a good thing; while not discrediting the importance of cleaning all major surfaces between flights, bathrooms have the most potential for fecal coliforms to spread,” they said.
But they do call for more diligent cleaning inside the plane, especially the tray table. Suggesting the reason why tray tables are so dirty, they say due to the quick turn-around time flights must keep, tray tables are only cleaned at the end of the day.
“What is needed is a procedure for increased efficiency of boarding and deplaning that gives the cabin crew more time to do a thorough cleaning between flights,” TravelMath summarizes.
“Much research is being done on theoretical boarding procedures; however, one aspect that could improve boarding time is encouraging more checked bags and thus reducing carry-on luggage. Boarding delays have been estimated to cost carriers a net $8 billion in 2007 for the United States alone (Ball et al., 2010). This indicates that lost revenues from checked bag fees might be recouped through reduced boarding time, with the added benefit of giving airline staff more time to clean between flights.”