How to thoroughly disinfect your airplane seat

May 20, 2020

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

It’s hard to imagine that at the turn of the year, the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, was just beginning to make its way from China to Europe to the United States and around the world.

In February and March, many air travelers took measures into their own hands to avoid getting sick from germs on aircraft. That included disinfecting their airplane seats upon boarding and sometimes wearing face masks. While JetBlue was the first airline to require passenger face masks, now, most major U.S. airlines have instituted guidelines requiring crew and passengers to wear face coverings from check-in through the boarding process while in-flight and while deplaning.

Why is it so important to be fastidious about the cleanliness of your airline seat? According to a study relating to travelers and the spread of germs on an airplane, nearly 20% of passengers have flown sick, and 19% of passengers don’t always wash their hands after using the airplane bathroom. Even celebrities like supermodel Naomi Campbell takes this seriously. She puts on gloves, wipes every nook and cranny of her airplane seat with sanitizing wipes, uses a seat cover and wears a face mask during the flight.

Talk about thorough.

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So, do these precautions prevent illness? We asked Charles P. Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist and professor of epidemiology and biostatistics who is known for his methodologies for pathogen detection. We also talked to Kelly A. Reynolds, a professor and environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Here’s what the germ experts had to say.

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What sanitizing products to use

There are lots of products on the market that promise to get rid of illness-causing germs. But there are only a few that will help prevent you from getting sick on a plane. “The right type of disinfecting wipes should work against [cold germs, norovirus, coronavirus, etc.],” said Gerba. “Many have the organisms they can kill [listed] on the label. Or, you can go to their webpage of the manufacturer and find out.”

Clorox To Go travel disinfecting wipes, for example, kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, including staph, E. coli, MRSA, salmonella, strep and Kleb.

“Coronavirus is actually easy to kill,” Reynolds said. “Studies have shown that disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers can kill bacteria and viruses that are much more difficult to kill than coronavirus.”

(Photo courtesy of Target)
(Photo courtesy of Target)

The products, of course, must be used correctly. The package instructions should state how long the surface that you’re cleaning should stay wet (four minutes in the case of Clorox). This ensures you’re getting the germ-killing power you want. If you want to disinfect your airplane seat, it means paying to board early, so you have time for a thorough cleaning.

Just realize that you won’t be able to use wipes on all types of seats. For example, Alaska Airlines asks that you avoid wiping down its leather seats with disinfectant wipes since it breaks down the material. Instead, the airline is investing in additional cleaning between flights and asks that you only use your wipes on things like the plastic seat armrests or tray tables.

Related: How airlines are adjusting to new coronavirus safety measures

Best sanitizing wipes

In addition to Clorox wipes, some of the best sanitizing wipes to bring on an airplane include Purell, or a pack of Germ-X wipes with moisturizing vitamin E. CareTouch makes alcohol-free, fragrance-free wipes that are gentle enough for young children and have soothing vitamin E and aloe.

And if you just want to spray your hands (or everything), try Dr. Bonner’s lavender- or peppermint-scented organic hand sanitizer spray in TSA-friendly bottles.

Focus on the tray

The areas your hands touch are the most important when it comes to disinfecting your space. The study found that airplane trays have a germ-meter score of 1,688 — compared to just 32 in the bathroom.

“In studies, we isolated influenza virus, norovirus and MRSA from the trays in front of you,” said Gerba. “If you think about it, that is where your hands are placed, and the trays are not disinfected between use.”

Use those wipes on the tray first, giving it a good cleaning before moving on to other surfaces such as the armrest and seat back displays. 

(Photo by Kiyoshi Hijiki/Getty Images)
Focus on the areas that people use most, like the tray table. (Photo by Kiyoshi Hijiki/Getty Images)

Gerba also suggests wiping the bathroom latch before use.

“The restroom latch also seems to get more contaminated with fecal bacteria, probably because of the heavy use of the restroom,” he said. “It’s the areas of high touch that are of the greatest concern because that is where you are more likely to pick up a germ that could make you ill.”  

Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about upholstered surfaces for now. Disinfecting can help with leather seats, but will not work on cloth ones. In that case, take a tip from Campbell and bring a washable and removable seat cover. There are also tray table and headrest covers you can use for extra protection.

Sanitize your hands

Although you might be focusing on cleaning the surfaces around you, it’s important to remember to sanitize your hands. 

(Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images)
If you can only do one thing, make sure you sanitize your hands. (Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images)

“You need to worry about hand-to-orifice transmission in addition to surface contamination,” said Reynolds. “Just sitting on a surface with illness-inducing organisms won’t make you sick. But if you touch the surface with your hand and then touch your face, that’s when you increase your chances of getting sick.” 

Reynolds suggests wiping all hard surfaces when you first get on the plane and then sanitizing your hands. This provides a double layer of protection from getting sick. 

Choose the window seat

Sanitizing your personal space on a flight may help keep you healthy, but there are other ways of preventing illness. Most have to do with proximity to a sick passenger.

Research from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed you have an 80% chance of becoming infected if one of 11 people nearest to you is sick. Otherwise, your risk plummets to a 3% chance of infection.

(Photo by © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images)
If you are worried about getting sick, choose the window seat over the aisle seat. (Photo by © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images)

“From studies done on airplanes, the best thing is to sit next to the window,” said Gerba. “You have less of a chance of picking up an infection from a fellow passenger. Meanwhile, you’re more likely to get sick if you have the aisle seat since passengers are always walking by you.” 

According to Gerba, studies suggest you’re only at risk from respiratory infections from the passengers next to you on the side, front and back.

Right now, it’s nice to know that many airlines are blocking the middle seat but don’t expect that to last forever. So, be prepared on your next flight with a supply of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer — and, of course, pack a comfortable face mask since chances are you’ll be asked to wear one in-flight.

Featured photo by hatawut Chaemchamras/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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