Flying might be, statistically, the safest mode of transportation in the world. Safest, in terms of your chances of not dying in a fiery crash. But nowhere near the safest in terms of getting sick. And while there are plenty of ways that flying is destroying your health, germs are probably the grossest.
But even the most obsessive people need to fly; they just also need know which parts of the cabin to wipe down with the industrial-size pack of bleach wipes stashed in their carry-on. And to help them out, we talked to flight attendants -- and pored over current medical research -- to identify the eight nastiest parts of the airplane.
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It's kind of funny that people get in actual fistfights for control of something that’s layered with disgusting bacteria. Plane logic. But in addition to being a place nearly every person touches with their infected hands, its non-porous surface makes it the spot where E. Coli lives the longest on an airplane, up to 96 hours according to an Auburn University study.
Pillows and blankets
So maybe the A/C is cranked or you don’t want to put your head right up against the bulkhead for a cramped night of uncomfortable sleep. Suck it up. A famous 2007 story from the Wall Street Journal found that airlines washed their pillows and blankets only once every five to 30 days. Yep. Once a month.
In addition to flight attendant horror stories about tray tables being used for everything from baby-changing stations to biohazard bins for bloody napkins, that Auburn study found them to be the place where E. Coli survived the second longest on the plane: a whopping 72 hours. And a 2007 study by Jonathan Sexton at the University of Arizona found MRSA on 60% of all airline tray tables that were tested.
You ever notice how even the “welcome” glass of water you get on board typically comes from a bottle? There’s a reason for that. Though the EPA has cracked down on airplane drinking water since a 2004 study found 17.2% of planes tested positive for coliform, a more recent study showed that number has dropped to only 12%. So, yeah, go with the Diet Coke, no ice.
Though any public bathroom is more or less the catalyst for a germaphobic nervous breakdown, the most septic part is always the toilet handle. Think about the order of operations in the bathroom; yeah, most people are touching it between doing their business and washing their hands. So wash yours. Also, about that E. Coli -- it's living here for a whole 48 hours. That’s two days' worth of doodie germs.
Sure, it’s a fun place to store your laptop so it doesn’t slide to the back of the plane during takeoff, and is especially handy for storing that half-finished Starbucks cup while you use the tray table, but it’s also a great place to put used tissues, toenail clippings, old gum, and snot you sneezed into your hand and don’t know where to wipe. People. Are. Awful.
Though the days of being able to leaf through last month’s Sports Illustrated on a plane are long gone, there’s still that bastion of useless stuff known as SkyMall (yes, it's back!). And while you might find perusing it for the latest and greatest in combination putting machines/soda fountains to be a great way to spend the flight, so has everyone else who’s been in your seat. And even when a plane does get a deep cleaning, nobody's exactly spraying the SkyMall down with Simple Green.
Thanks to the fire hydrant-powered spray of the toilet, germs end up covering the lavatory. And the most popular place for those microscopic pellets of water to land? After the floor, it’s the counter. Which, if you listen to flight attendant anecdotes, is often cleaned by crews with the same rag that’s used to clean the toilet. Also, where do you think adventurous Mile High Clubbers do THEIR business?
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