It doesn't take a scientific study to know airplanes (and airports) are cauldrons of germs. Cabin air might be filtered, but any frequent flyer can see that being knee to knee with a coughing traveling companion or sharing a minuscule bathroom with 75 strangers is an invitation to post-flight illness.

But while the dangers of germ-encrusted planes are obvious, ways to avoid the hazard aren't. You don't choose to be seated next to a guy with the sniffles, after all, and if you are, there's generally nowhere to go to escape him. So is there nothing you can do to decrease your chances of catching something nasty on your next trip?

That's what a team of scientists wanted to find out with an innovative new study funded by Boeing. For the first time, researchers actually got on planes and carefully observed the behavior of more than 1,500 passengers. They then used the data to model how germs are spread between around planes. The results offer useful guidance to help travelers avoid catching a bug the next time they fly.

Choose a window seat and stay in it.

Window seats offer a nice, distracting view of the earth passing below, but the con is you can't get up and move around without jiggling your way past a couple of (possibly sleeping) fellow passengers. But it turns out this drawback may actually be a plus, as sticking to your seat was the best way to avoid getting ill, the research discovered.

"About 80 percent of people sitting on the aisle moved at least once during their flights, compared with 62 percent in middle seats and 43 percent in window seats," writes the New York Times, reporting the findings (and surprising no one who's been on a plane).

That relative lack of movement, as well as less contact with the roving germ collectors known as flight attendants, translated into a relatively lower risk of infection for those seated by the window. Which makes the golden rule of avoiding getting sick on a plane dead simple: choose a window seat and stay there for the duration of the flight. 

Or as University of Arizona environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba succinctly put it to Wired: "The aisle is where they get ya."

Don't panic: you'll like your odds.

While the study offers useful advice for travelers, all this talk of microbes and infection could alarm more germ-phobic readers. Just how grody is airline travel, whether you stay in your seat or get up to use the loo? You will probably like the answer.

Yes, planes are full of germs. And yes, sitting within a meter of someone actively hacking and sniffling has a high likelihood of getting you sick. But if you have enough luck not to be seated next to the flu patient in seat 11B, you stand a great chance of disembarking disease free.

When the scientists modeled disease transmission, they found that while an "infected person's 11 nearest neighbors faced a greater than 80 percent chance of infection," Wired reports, "all the remaining passengers, however, had a lower than 3 percent risk." So while getting stuck next to a sick person is nearly a surefire way to come down with whatever he or she is suffering from, if your nearest neighbors seem healthy, your odds are excellent.

And if you choose an aisle seat and stick to it like glue, they're even more excellent.

Published on: Mar 27, 2018
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