How to thoroughly disinfect your airplane seat

Feb 22, 2020

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As concerns about the new coronavirus from China, COVID-19, continue to escalate, many air travelers are taking measures into their own hands to avoid getting sick from germs on an aircraft. recently published a study relating to travelers and the spread of germs on an airplane. The study showed that nearly 20% of passengers have flown sick, and 19% of passengers don’t always wash their hands after using the airplane bathroom. So, it’s no wonder many flyers are diligent about disinfecting their seats. Supermodel Naomi Campbell, for example, says 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:

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 really 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 web page 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.

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 seatback 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.

Featured photo by hatawut Chaemchamras/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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