How to Disinfect Your Next Flight, According to Experts

Even barring massive diarrhea incidents, planes aren't exactly the cleanest places to be.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Images courtesy Getty Images
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Images courtesy Getty Images

There's a certain genre of morning news that's all about the hidden grossness of our world—the secret bacteria living in your fridge and the dust mites building colonies in your pillow cases. At some point, it's like 'OK, well, the Earth is a giant germ, what's to be done?' But if there's a piece of dirty doomerism journalism you need to take seriously, it's about airplanes. Because according to experts, they are pretty gnarly places to be.

Obviously, this is a timely topic because of that whole Delta diarrhea incident (an alliteration I'm sure the airline is not thrilled about). What happens when someone poops "throughout" the whole cabin? According to airport records, it took five hours for that plane to be cleaned and sent back up in the air. Theoretically, that's the amount of time it takes for a commercial aircraft to be cleaned and re-dispatched for duty. But is it enough time? Just what kind of germs are floating around plane cabins? And is there a way to safeguard yourself against them?

Thrillist spoke with biohazard, cleaning, and aviation experts to answer these questions, so that the next time you fly, you can be better prepared.

Are airplanes cleaned enough?

The answer to this question is a big "it depends," based on your definition of cleaning. Surface-level cleaning can happen as frequently as in between flights, while deeper cleans are done much less often. According to Sean Walsh, a licensed aviation and travel specialist and founder of the online pilot community PilotPassion, the pandemic brought an increased focus on plane cleanliness.

"Commercial airplane­s are regularly cleane­d and sanitized, but the freque­ncy of deep cleaning can vary de­pending on the airline and aircraft type­," Walsh told Thrillist. "Typically, deep cleaning and disinfe­ction occur overnight during layovers, espe­cially for long-haul flights. In response to the COVID-19 pande­mic, airlines have intensifie­d their cleaning protocols to prioritize hygie­ne onboard."

But the more focused cleaning protocols are still lacking, according to some experts. The frequency of those deep cleans is really insufficient, according to Anton Radchenko, an airline industry expert and founder and CEO of passengers rights company AirAdvisor. Most planes are deep cleaned about once a month.

"Airplanes are rarely deep cleaned, which is roughly once a month and that's a big part of the problem," Radchenko said. "In peak holiday seasons such as now, there's an increased influx of passengers, so planes should be deep cleaned once a week. In fact, it should be a priority, especially when we're regularly seeing biohazards on planes."

"We regularly see passengers reaching out to us complaining about the lack of hygiene on planes and such incidents have been on the rise in recent weeks," Radchenko continued. "This speaks volumes about the state of cleanliness on airlines and shows that airline companies need to buck up and prioritize passenger safety at all costs."

What kind of germs are on airplanes?

You might be sorry you asked this question. Aaron Christensen, resident cleaning expert at Homeaglow, a house cleaning service in California, called planes "a hotbed of germs, bacteria, and viruses." The CDC agrees, advising that communicable diseases can be transmitted through travel.

"You can encounter everything from fecal matter to COVID to the bacteria that causes strep throat," Christensen told Thrillist. "It's been shown that viruses and bacteria can live for at least a week on some surfaces in airplanes. Other studies have also shown that your immune function is compromised by the low oxygen and low pressure conditions in planes. Basically, air travel is a recipe for getting sick if you’re not careful."

According to a relatively bare-bones Canadian Broadcasting Company study from 2018, the dirtiest surfaces of airplanes are headrests, the seat pocket, the bathroom door handle, the tray table, and the seat belt. The CBC study only accounted for 18 different flights in Canada—so it's not exactly the largest sample group. But when considering the study results, it makes sense. Those are the surfaces most passengers make contact with the most often.

The seat pocket might be a bit surprising—it seems relatively innocuous compared to the headrest and the bathroom door handle. But the CBC study found mold, yeast, bacteria, and E. coli inside the pockets. Some of these can be attributed to the presence of fecal matter inside the pockets, which can be transferred from items like used tissues and dirty diapers.

But no matter where you are, you are likely to come into contact with fecal matter (sorry). That's not because there's a wild surge of diarrhea incidents happening, either. It's just the way things are. Everybody poops, and so naturally, poop is everywhere.

"We're all walking around, breathing, and covered in a fine veneer of poo, and yet we're all (probably!) going to be fine," Philip M. Tierno, a microbiologist at New York University, told Healthcare Facilities Today.

That's not to say there is no danger when it comes to surfaces that are contaminated in fecal matter. "...Human waste and other body fluids can spread dangerous infectious diseases like hepatitis A, C. diff, E. coli, rotavirus, and norovirus," biohazard cleaning company Crime Clean Up advises on its website.

How can I disinfect and protect myself on my next flight?

Just because poop and other bacteria is everywhere doesn't mean you want to be slow roasting in it on your next long-haul flight. And fortunately, there's a plethora of tools and tricks that can help keep you protected from harmful microbes.

1. First and foremost, pack a surface disinfectant.
"I recommend carrying a surface disinfectant or sanitizer spray to disinfect the plane in your area. Avoid going to the toilet but if you need to, carry a toilet seat spray," Radchenko said.

2. Use that disinfectant on all surfaces you can.
Walsh advises using disinfectant wipes on everything in your immediate area: including tray tables, armrests, and seat belt buckles.

"When it comes to sanitizing, you'll want to work on your headrest, armrests, tray, and seat pocket. All have been shown by various studies to have very high levels of bacteria and viruses," Christensen said. "Use either sanitizing wet wipes or a liquid hand sanitizer. The hardest surfaces to clean are fabrics and things like magazines, so avoid touching your chair pocket and its contents if you can. Headrests are harder to avoid and using a piece of sanitary paper towel or napkin is your best bet for keeping germs off the back of your head and neck. You can request this from airline staff."

3. Mask up.
Maybe you've grown indifferent to the dangers of COVID-19 (you shouldn't be), but that's far from the only respiratory illnesses that can be present in airplanes. "A mask helps prevent you from upper respiratory infections like COVID by reducing the amount of virus-infected droplets you inhale," Christensen said.

In addition to COVID, RSV and the flu are also heavily spreading in the population right now. This "tridemic" can cause simultaneous infections. And if that's not enough to motivate you, remember: Fecal matter can be in air particles too.

4. Wash up.
The number-one way to prevent the spread of nasty germs is also the simplest. Wash your hands, with soap, for 20 seconds. "Maintaining good personal hygiene­ through frequent handwashing and using hand sanitizer can he­lp reduce the risk of e­xposure to germs and bacteria during a flight," Walsh said.

Don't be afraid to follow up a handwashing with a little extra hand sanitizer, either.

"Toilet sinks and door handles have also been shown to be covered in all kinds of bacteria and viruses. After you leave the bathroom, and before you return to your seat, sanitize your hands thoroughly," Christensen said.

5. Practice a post-plane strip.
Hopefully, your natural sense of self-preservation is urging you to take off your clothes and hop in the shower as soon as you get off an airplane. If not, consider giving it a go.

"As soon as you can after your flight, remove and wash your clothing and shower yourself thoroughly," Christensen explained. "Also, avoid embracing and touching loved ones until you've been able to clean yourself and your clothing. Getting sick is bad, but sharing it around is worse."

Ultimately, Naomi Campbell deserves an apology from everyone who teased her for her pre-pandemic plane hazmat suit. It may have looked over the top, but with everything we've learned about all the unseen and unwelcome germy guests on planes, her sartorial choices make perfect sense. You definitely don't need one in order to stay safe from germs, but it wouldn't hurt, either.

Looking for more travel tips?

Whether you need help sneaking weed onto a plane, finding an airport where you can sign up for PreCheck without an appointment, or making sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to when your flight is canceled, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for up-to-date travel hacks and all the travel news you need to help you plan your next big adventure.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.