Memo to Air Travelers: That Disinfecting Wipe Won’t Save You
Why a top-to-bottom seat swab is not as effective as you might think
Naomi Campbell recently posted a video to her personal YouTube channel titled “Naomi Campbell’s Airport Routine.” In the five minute clip, the supermodel glides through an airport in flowing silk pants, a matching top, and saucer-sized sunglasses. She looks back to casually inform the camera, “we’re going to Qatar,” before ascending into the first-class section of the aircraft. That’s when things really get going: “Clean anything you could possibly touch” she instructs, disinfects everything from the screen to the back of the headrest with a Dettol wipe with a gloved hand. “This is what I do on every plane I get on,” she continues. “I do not care what people think of me, it’s my health and it makes me feel better.” Finally, she drapes the entire chair in a bright pink blanket, dons a surgical mask, and settles in for her flight. The video has almost 1.8 million views and the comments are filled with believers.
One such believer is Hillary Dixler Canavan. She hasn’t always been an airplane cleanser, but things changed in 2013 when she started traveling frequently for work. Although Dixler Canavan doesn’t take it to the latex-glove-wearing level that Campell does, she’s put a lot of thought into her routine and keeps a go bag of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer at all times. “If more people did routines like this […] everybody on the airplane would be healthier,” she said. “Wiping down those tray tables and the armrest, in my opinion, it’s a public service.”
Campbell and Dixler Canavan’s personal plane hygiene routines are understandable, but are they effective? What are the actual odds of catching something on an airplane, and does the risk really come from a dirty tray table?
According to Nick Rizzo, an internal medicine specialist at Premiere General Medicine in Illinois, being on an airplane doesn’t necessarily expose you to more germs than on the ground. “One of the things that is a big fallacy, especially in the U.S., is how many germs are out there, and how [they’re] going to hurt you,” he explains. Human beings are constantly exposed to pathogens in every public space, from subway cars to the counter at a coffee shop, most often without sterilization, and the tray table on a plane doesn’t pose a higher risk for healthy people.
“I think the issue that Naomi is missing is that, from a clinical standpoint, I never see people coming in saying ‘I have a staph infection that I caught on a plane,’” Rizzo continues. “What I do see a lot of though, is people coming in with upper respiratory stuff [after traveling].”
Pathogens causing upper respiratory diseases like the influenza virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and the common cold, are highly contagious and primarily spread through the air. Wiping down your tray table can’t protect you from that. That said, an airplane is not teeming with airborne pathogens. While many believe that planes are closed-air environments and the air that’s blowing can spread germs, in reality, the air in an aircraft is exchanged more frequently than the air in most office buildings.
Human beings are constantly exposed to pathogens, from subway cars to the counter at a coffee shop, most often without sterilization, and the tray table on a plane doesn’t pose a higher risk for healthy people.
According to a statement by the World Health Organization (WHO), the “ventilation rates provide a total change of air 20–30 times per hour. Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50% of cabin air.” What’s more, the recycled air is “usually passed through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, of the type used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.” The WHO therefore concludes that there is “very little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft.”
Of course, high-tech filters can’t keep passengers entirely safe. If contaminated air reaches you before it’s recirculated and filtered, there’s still a risk of contracting an illness. But for this to happen, you need to be very close to the infected person. Karl Neumann, a pediatrician specializing in travel medicine, explains that airborne diseases can only spread a short distance. “If you’re sitting five rows away from a person who is breathing out viruses or bacteria you’re very unlikely to be infected. The only way you can get sick from another passenger is if you’re sitting within one or two rows of such a person,” he says.
This statement aligns with a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences. Data suggests that passengers seated within one row or two seats of an infected individual have an approximately 80% chance of becoming infected, but if they are further away, the likelihood dips to less than 3%.
For those who want to be extra safe, a surgical mask could potentially protect from airborne transmission, but not all masks are created equal. There are two main designs: Soft cloth surgical masks, like the one Campbell dons in her video, are designed to prevent moisture or droplets falling from the mouth of the wearer. To prevent pathogen inhalation, you’d need to seek out a medical respirator mask, a mask that fits tightly to the face and is engineered to protect from respiratory illnesses.
As for disinfecting a plane’s surfaces, Rizzo says that wiping down the most frequently touched areas is “reasonable.” He goes on to say that the number one useful thing to do is even simpler: “Medically, I would recommend handwashing,” Rizzo explains. This advice is echoed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guide for preventing the spread of disease on commercial aircraft, which refers to handwashing as the “the single most important infection control measure.”
When flying, the best way to ensure you stay healthy is to stick to the basics: Wash your hands before and after you fly, avoid touching your nose and mouth in-flight, and if at all possible, limit your use of the airplane lavatory.
While not strictly necessary, using a sanitizing wipe to clean your tray table and other areas around your seat certainly won’t hurt. As Dixler Canavan says, “It’s a small gesture against the hideousness of air travel […] those planes aren’t clean, they’re not comfortable. Flying, in my opinion, sucks, at least you can make it cleaner.”