Most people believe commercial airplane cabins to be festering cess pools of germs just waiting to infect the people seated inside them. And while, yes, passengers suffering from some common airborne illness like the cold or flu can indeed get their seatmates sick, you're not at much risk of catching something by just being in the same stuffy space as them. That's at least according to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that you're really only at risk of catching something contagious if you’re seated within three feet of a sick person.
The study employed a team of people seated in every five rows of a single-aisle aircraft to observe the comings and goings of passengers and crew within the airplane cabin during 10 intercontinental flights, and compared those movement patterns to the long-known ways in which the flu is transmitted in the air. The team also collected air and surface samples from all around the cabin to see just how germy it is in general.
The researchers assumed a hypothetical sick passenger was seated in the middle of the plane, and created a computer model using their collected data to simulate who might get infected by them. Surprisingly, they found that passengers who sat in the row directly in front of or behind a sick person (or within two seats to the right or left of them) had an 80% or higher chance of getting infected, while for everyone else on board the likelihood of being infected dropped to just 3%.
Of course, these presumptions were made using a computer model, and the real world can introduce lots of unpredictable scenarios (a sick person sneezes while walking to the lavatory or brushes up against you while boarding, etc.), but it's still nice to know airplanes may not be the crazy disease-spreading machines we all thought they were. In fact, of the 229 surface and air samples the researchers collected, not a single one tested posted for even traces of 18 different common respiratory viruses.
And while all this intel is well and good, there's really no way to plan ahead to prevent yourself from being seated in close proximity to a flu-ey or sneezy specimen. All you can hope for is that you'll be able to finagle your way into a free seat away from an obviously sick person once you board (or try to swap with some unsuspecting poor soul).
Also, wash your damn hands, people!