In-flight transmission infectious disease is "important global health concern [because] air travel can serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics," according to a recently published study.

Scientists say that threats are three-fold:

  1. Infectious respiratory diseases (like flu) which are spread by droplets launched into the air (and onto surfaces) by coughing, sneezing and nose-wiping.
  2. E-coli bacteria (i.e. poop germs) which are spread by people (men mostly, BTW) who don't wash their hands after using the restroom.
  3. Everything else. The study cited above pointed out that, because planes span long distances, they're a vector for the spread of exotic diseases, including Ebola.

Sufficiently worried to take some real action? Good. Here's how to reduce your personal risk:

Before Your Flight

1. Reserve a window seat. One of the two major sources of in-flight transmission of respiratory diseases are adjacent passengers. A window seat reduces that number from eight to five. 

2. Avoid the aisle seat. While an aisle creates distance between you and three adjacent passengers (i.e. those seated across the aisle), foot traffic increases the number or people who might sneeze while close to you.

3. Purchase early boarding. Overall, it's in your interest to stay as far as possible from other passengers. Early boarding reduces the amount of time you spend queued up next to people who are possibly contagious. 

4. Bring your own snacks. Pre-packaged sandwiches (not to mention airline food itself) can result in food poisoning. While you can't bring liquids through security, sandwiches, nuts, etc. shouldn't cause any problems.

5. Pack antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizer in your carry-on. You'll be using them both frequently. Remember, though, the hand sanitizer must be less than 3.4 oz. to get through airport security.

At The Airport

5. Buy packaged beverages at the airport. Accepting drinks from the flight crew increases personal contact and non-packaged drinks (cups of water or coffee) might contain infected water. Buy and bring your own.

6. Sit far from the boarding crowd. The more people with whom you are in close proximity, the greater the chances that you'll catch an infectious disease. If possible find a seat in a corner and away from close foot traffic.

7. Wipe down your waiting room seat's arms. You don't know who's been sitting where you're sitting or whether they've washed their hands after doing their business. Wiping down the arms destroys most bacteria.

8. Use the airport restroom wisely. While they're not nearly as bacteria-infected as the on-board restrooms, airport restrooms can get fairly grotty. Try to limit your visits to one... just before you board.

9. Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds. When you wash your hands after, lather with soap and sing "Happy Birthday" silently twice before rinsing off. I learned this trick from the Disney Cruise line, BTW, which hasn't had an on-board epidemic since 2004.

10. Use hand sanitizer frequently and liberally. When you're traveling always sterilize your hands before you eat or (especially) touch your mouth or nose. The rule here is: if in doubt, sterilize.

During Your Flight

11. Wipe down your seat, tray table and controls. Contrary to popular belief, the area of the plane that's most likely to e-coli bacteria (i.e. the poop bug that causes food poisoning) is the tray table. It's even dirtier than the restrooms.

12. Avoid moving around the cabin. Again, the more you limit your contact with other passengers and crew, the less likely you are to catch an infectious respiratory disease. BTW, a sick crew member, on average, infects 4.6 passengers per flight.

13. Don't use the on-board restroom. Seriously, hold it in if at all possible. Don't even go there, literally.

14. Wear a respiration mask if necessary. If due to your own health problems, you're more likely to become infected or be damaged by illness, wear a surgical mask to reduce the likelihood you'll breath infect droplets traveling through the air.

After Your Flight

15. Stand away from the baggage claim crowd. Once again, mingling with the crowd increases the likelihood you'll intercept the results of a cough or sneeze. Wait until the crowd thins out, then retrieve your bags.

16. Wipe down your luggage handles. The baggage handlers may not have washed adequately or might be ill themselves. Also, airline cargo holds aren't exactly the most sanitary of places since animals are often kept inside them for hours.

17. Don't let up during ground transportation. It would be ironic and sad if, after keeping yourself low risk during the flight, you got sick from an Uber, taxi or shuttle. Not to mention the hotel room which, alas, are often not adequately cleaned.

Needless to say, all of the above might sound a bit OCD germo-phobic but actually it's mostly common sense.

Published on: Mar 22, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.