Matej Kastelic/ShutterstockCramming hundreds of people into a tight space for hours is going to spread germs. (Even the way airlines board planes is getting people sick.) Airplanes, like most forms of public transportation, are ideal places for bacteria to thrive. And while you may not need warnings about how gross the airplane bathroom is, no one could guess that a germ-ridden fixture is located at your seat, in plain sight, and within arms’ reach.
Travel Math sent a microbiologist to check five airports and four airplanes for bacteria. The tests revealed that tray table takes the cake for dirtiest surface, coming in at 2,155 colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch—no surprise there. But a dark horse took second place, edging out the bathroom: That innocent-looking air vent over the seat had 285 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch. That was higher than the toilet flush button at 265 CFUs. Even the bathroom stall lock had only 70 CFUs per square inch.
“Germs are everywhere,” the researchers say in the study. Case in point: Be wary of the blankets and pillows airports hand out gratis. While there’s no denying it can get very chilly on an airplane, and it’s hard to deny a cozy gesture from the flight attendants, the reality is that the staff doesn’t clean these items as often as they should. (Find out why it’s so cold on airplanes in the first place.) This means the chances of you snuggling up to a dried pile of drool from a previous passenger is pretty high.
In 2000, a trade union discovered traces of bacteria on pillows and blankets that were linked to illnesses like lung and eye infections. Many airlines have gotten rid of them altogether; if you are offered one, request that you get a pillow or blanket that’s still sealed in plastic. Otherwise, pack your own—and memorize these tips on getting comfortable on an airplane.