Just How Dirty Are Airplanes?

Airplanes travel makes it possible for you to see the world. While a good book and your travel pillow help you stay comfortable as you fly, airplanes can make you sick. A variety of surfaces harbour bacteria and germs, such as cold viruses, influenza, norovirus, and MRSA. Discover just how dirty airplanes are and the steps you can take to sanitize your next flight.  Let’s take a look at the places these germs frequent.

Seat Trays

Spilled food, along with bacteria and germs from used tissues or dirty hands, accumulate on plastic seat trays, making them the grungiest parts of the airplane. In fact, these trays contain 2,155 bacteria colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch, which is eight times more than the airplane’s toilet flush button.

Seat Belts

Designed for safety, airplane seat belt buckles can accumulate as many as 230 CFU per square inch. The belt fabric collects dirt and germs, too, from dropped food and unwashed hands.

Seat Pockets

More than storage for in-flight magazines and safety instruction, seat pockets are often used as wastebaskets for food wrappers, used tissues and diapers, nail clippings, and other debris. Every time you touch the pocket, you could be exposed to numerous germs, including MRSA, which can survive for seven days on fabric.

Window Shades

Sitting by the window gives you great views from the air. Germs and bacteria can survive on window shades for several days, though, which means your skin could come in contact with drool, unwashed hands and runny noses each time you touch this surface.

Pillows and Blankets

A nap makes long flights more comfortable and tolerable, especially if you use a complimentary pillow and blanket. Unfortunately, most airline crews simply fold the blankets, stuff the pillows in the overhead compartment and recycle these items during the next flight. Unless the pillow and blanket are sealed, your nap could include exposure to cold viruses, herpes, lice and other contagions that are carried by previous passengers or found in the overhead compartment.


Think about the dirt, bacteria and germs that could reside on an airplane’s floor. Passengers’ shoes and luggage could collect mud, dead skin, vomit, and several other unsavory items on the trek through the airport. You will come in contact with this dirty surface if you walk barefoot, pick up a dropped object or touch the floor with your hands.

Aisle Seats

The aisle seat offers freedom as you fly, but the headrest is also prime real estate for germs. Fellow travelers could easily spread bacteria and germs as they touch your headrest and cough or sneeze while moving up and down the aisle.

Seats in Coach

When flight crews have only a few minutes to clean the plane between trips, they start in the first class and business sections. This strategy means coach seats could harbor more dirt and germs than upgraded seats.


You could find up to 265 CFU per square inch on the airplane’s toilet flush button. This area is germy in part because travelers touch this button before they wash their hands. High-traffic spots like the door lock mechanism, door handle and faucet handle are typically dirty, too.

Sanitize Your Flight

Airline staff members do perform a general clean up between flights. However, they may have as little as 30 minutes to turn the plane and prepare for the next set of passengers. The short turn provides just enough time to wipe down the bathrooms, remove crumbs from seats and restock supplies. Crews may be able to vacuum the floor, wipe down the seats and empty seat pockets during longer turns or when the plane sits overnight, but deep cleaning occurs only once every one to three months, depending on the airline.

Despite the dirty airplane environment, you can protect yourself when you fly.

First, never fly if you’re sick. If you absolutely must travel, wear a mask and try to stay to yourself.

Next, upgrade your seat, if possible, and snag a spot in the cleaner section of the plane.

Pack sanitary wipes in your carry-on bag, too. Use them to wipe off your seat, armrest, seat belt, and tray table the minute you sit down.

Sanitary wipes or tissues also double as barriers. Use these protectors when you have to touch a dirty surface, such as the seat belt, seat pocket, bathroom door handle, or flush button.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer in a TSA-approved size can also help you fight germs. Washing your hands thoroughly in hot, soapy water is best, but sanitizer works in a pinch, especially after you touch dirty items around your seat.

You’ll also want to bring your own pillow. A travel pillow with a washable cover protects you from germs and makes your flight more comfortable.

Finally, resist the urge to touch the floor. Keep your shoes on at all times, and sanitize personal items that you store or drop on the floor.

Airplanes are very dirty. Fortunately, you can take precautions. In addition to using a travel pillow, keep your hands to yourself and stay healthy as you explore the world.

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