Don’t Touch That! The Dirtiest Parts of the Airplane Cabin, Revealed
Planes are breeding grounds for germs and grime. We got the scoop on the dirtiest places aboard and talked to infectious disease experts about how you can stay hygienic and healthy while flying.
With the busy holiday travel season nearly here, many of us will be taking to the skies to visit friends and family and embrace warm-weather and wintry getaways. In between stressing about high ticket prices and potential flight delays and cancellations, travelers may also be thinking about the grimiest areas on an airplane—and how not to get sick while flying.
Recent reporting from the Washington Post revealing the dirtiest areas on an airplane based on a germ-detection swab test wasn’t terribly surprising, but it’s still somewhat unsettling.
A flight attendant, who preferred not to give her name as she is still employed by a major U.S. airline, admits to AFAR that she has seen her fair share of disgusting things while working, including far too many passengers trudging to the lavatory wearing only socks. If the bathroom floor is wet, it’s safe to assume that it’s urine, she says.
For travelers who want to avoid (and protect themselves from) some of the filthiest places on the plane, here’s what you need to know.
What are the dirtiest places on an airplane?
The lavatory (specifically the various handles)
Although the Washington Post experiment showed the bathroom’s sink handle to be the worst culprit of germs, the U.S. flight attendant we spoke to says to beware the door handle, too, because “a lot of people don’t wash their hands.” From her jump seat perch, she says it’s easy to tell by how quickly people exit the lavatory.
For those who are washing their hands after they are done using the restroom, a 2019 Airline Water Study conducted by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center found that the water airlines use for coffee, tea, and the lavatory sink could be unhealthy—further complicating the issue of in-flight hand washing. Nevertheless, it’s still probably better not to skip this step entirely, according to an AFAR report about the 2019 study. Passengers can simply go one step further and use hand sanitizer after they’ve returned to their seats with washed and dried hands.
The seat-back screens, tray tables, and pockets
On planes with screens built into the back of the seats, passengers can just go ahead and assume these aren’t getting polished by the cleaning crew post-flight. Countless fingers and hands are touching the buttons, leaving the grime and germs to build up. The flight attendant we spoke to says she sees a lot of passengers wipe down the screens, which is a good thing in her mind, because they are “super duper dirty.”
Another place on the plane that’s touched with frequency—and not subject to a thorough scrub (or any scrub!) between flights—is the tray table. The flight attendant says these aren’t, in fact, typically wiped down with any regularity “unless we’ve reported that somebody has thrown up or that there’s been a massive spill of some sort.” (Those who are really grossed out can invest in one of these airplane tray table covers with its own built-in pockets.)
As for the seat-back pockets: These are supposed to be cleared of trash in between flights, but if the cleaning crew runs out of time, this is an area likely to suffer the consequences. According to the Washington Post’s findings, the seat-back pocket is much less germ-ridden than the tray table, which makes wiping down your tray table with a sanitizing wipe of paramount importance.
The seats and seatbelts
In perhaps the grossest scenario ever (save for the passenger who was so sick with diarrhea on a recent Delta flight that the plane had to turn around), our flight attendant source recalls a passenger who was informed he could not get up to use the lavatory because the plane had begun its decent just went ahead and relieved himself right then and there in his seat.
After the plane landed and the man walked off the plane, all they did was wipe down the seat, the flight attendant says. No additional cleaning measures were taken because there was no time, as is often the case in between flights. Even though the seating areas can be some of the grimiest places on a plane, they aren’t always given special attention, AFAR reported earlier this summer.
What airlines are doing to keep their planes clean
The airlines say they are doing their part to keep their aircraft as clean and safe as possible for passengers. JetBlue’s newest aircraft, the Airbus A321LR, for instance, has upgraded lavatories with antimicrobial surfaces (featuring therapeutic substances used to prevent infections) and touchless amenities such as the lavatory sink, toilet flush, and garbage disposal. Passengers will still need to use the door handle, however, which is where sanitizing wipes come in.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines has upped its cleaning strategy significantly since 2020, when it launched a global cleanliness division, and, as of 2021, the airline has a chief health officer, Dr. Henry Ting. “In 2020, Delta became the first U.S. airline to permanently install Purell hand sanitizer dispensers near boarding doors and lavatories on most Delta aircraft,” a Delta Air Lines spokesperson tells AFAR.
A United Airlines spokesperson says the carrier’s aircraft are cleaned and disinfected throughout the day and receive deeper cleans overnight. According to the spokesperson, “We have continued our antimicrobial coating program, which keeps aircraft disinfected even between cleanings, and [we] offer single-use sanitizing wipes to customers during boarding.”
How to stay hygienic and healthy up in the air
Despite—or in addition to—the airlines’ efforts, is there anything passengers can do to better protect themselves against the filth? According to infectious disease experts, there are some steps travelers can take to lower their risks of getting sick due to viruses and bacteria lingering on various surfaces.
Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes play a role in keeping our hands and surfaces clean, says Dr. Joshua Rosenberg, an infectious disease and critical care medicine physician at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. He adds, “The use of an antiseptic wipe that kills viruses and bacteria on the high-touch surfaces of the plane might be helpful.”
Rosenberg, however, admits that there are no scientific studies on using wipes in airplanes. “We can extrapolate from the research done on high-touch surfaces in the healthcare industry,” says Rosenberg, who also advocates for the use of hand hygiene with alcohol based gels, since “hand hygiene, such as washing before eating or touching your face, and of course after the bathroom, is the single largest step a traveler can take to prevent acquiring an illness.”
Since bacteria on airplanes that reaches your face is largely coming from your hands, one way of avoiding touching your face is to wear a mask. Masks, Rosenberg says, provide “a physical barrier to touching our face, especially the nose and mouth which are the common portals of entry for viruses.”
Like Rosenberg, Dr. William Shaffner, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, advises travelers to pay attention to their hands, since “the mechanism by which any viruses that are residing in the inanimate environment out there get to us is via our hands.”
Beyond good hand hygiene, wearing a mask, and not flying when you’re under the weather, Rosenberg says other tips for healthy flying include avoiding alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and not being sleep-deprived (if you can help it), since these are all factors which weaken the immune system.
Shaffner maintains that the greatest health hazard in air travel (or any public transport for that matter) is not germy surface areas but rather airborne respiratory viruses. Respiratory viruses, Shaffner tells AFAR, “are spread principally through what we call droplet spread, which is standing within three feet of somebody, or occasionally more airborne spread when you’re at a distance.”
Although the days of mandatory masking during flights are behind us, many travelers are securing their face masks once again (and, in fact, many never stopped) as COVID cases rise in some areas and a staunch desire to avoid the common cold dictates decisions.