The Way We’re Boarding Airplanes Is Making People Sick

Scientists found a way to keep you healthy when you get on your flight.

boarding planeHave a nice day Photo/ShutterstockIf you always take hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, and vitamin C tablets along on every flight, we can’t blame you. When you’re sharing recycled air when cramped in with 200 other passengers, it’s no surprise that planes are a hotbed for infections—especially when you add in these reasons you always get sick on vacation.

Beyond stealing these tips from people who never get sick, there’s no perfect plan for escaping germs midair. But one study in the journal Physical Review E found the way we board an airplane could help keep sicknesses from spreading.

The way most airlines ask you to get on (by three zones, from front to back) not only isn’t the fastest way to board planes, but it’s also far from the cleanest. Using a computer-simulated Ebola outbreak, researchers looked at how people moved in a plane and how quickly a disease would spread. The study authors found that the typical boarding method creates a 67 percent risk of 20 passengers catching the virus every month. Not the best odds, even if you upgrade your flight or choose the seat least likely to make you sick.

Luckily, the researchers found a better method: splitting the plane into two sections, left and right. When passengers got on randomly within those groups, the chance for that level of infection went down to 40 percent.

Using front-to-back zones creates a bottleneck. Everyone is heading for the same section of the plane and needs to pause while the people who got on ahead of them settle in. But those jams happen less when passengers from just one side board randomly. Without standing around waiting for each other to hoist bags and clear seats, passengers aren’t next to each other for long. Less time in close quarters means less chance of passing germs.

“Surprisingly, changing policies—even those as simple as boarding patterns—can have a significant impact on the global spread of an infectious disease,” study co-author Anuj Mubayi, assistant professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University, says in a statement.

The system for getting off a flight didn’t make a difference in spreading disease because the process is so much faster, the study authors say.

The random-order system had lower infection rates no matter what the plane size, but some flights fared better than others. Taking a flight with less than 150 seats puts you at a better chance of avoiding disease, according to the study. Tighter quarters seem like a perfect breeding ground, but smaller planes actually mean fewer people around you, and even fewer who are sick. Plus, by getting your seat faster, you’ll spend less time around strangers who could spread their germs.

You can’t control how your airline chooses to board passengers, but you do have some choice over plane size. Stick with a smaller airline if you’re concerned about germs, and follow these other smart tricks to avoid getting sick on a flight.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.