Hand washing can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 16 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If soap and water aren’t available, hand sanitizers with more than 60 percent alcohol work. Here’s a tip: Dr. Hertzberg said to make sure the sanitizer dries on your hands. If it doesn’t, germs can thrive.
What about tray tables and seats?
“Don’t eat off the table,” Dr. Tierno said.
A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found that crew members had a limited time to clean the cabin before passengers on the next flight boarded. Some of the people the GAO interviewed said employers “did not provide hand-on training to respond to specific disease outbreaks such as Ebola.”
And the office cautioned that the United States lacked a comprehensive plan “aimed at preventing and containing the spread of diseases through air travel.” One bright spot: Fourteen airports and three airlines reviewed had such plans.
So, what does that mean for travelers? Some people bring sanitizing wipes and use them to wipe down seats, tray tables, bathroom handles and even air vents. The health care professionals we spoke to said this was not recommended.
Dr. Hertzberg suggested placing sheets of paper on tray tables so laptops or other items don’t come in contact with the surface. She suggested using a paper towel when opening and closing the bathroom door. Dr. Pietro said not to place food directly on the table. (It should be kept in its container.) And forget about using seat-back holders. A 2014 study from Auburn University in Alabama said some germs could survive a week on a cloth pocket.
Is the air safe to breathe?
The risk of contracting an illness from a fellow airline passenger is similar to the risk of getting sick after traveling on a bus or subway, or sitting in a movie theater, according to a 2018 report from the International Air Transport Association. That said, it offered a qualifier: The risk is probably lower on planes because they use high-efficiency air filters that are comparable to those used in hospital operating rooms. Called HEPA filters, they capture 99 percent of the airborne microbes in recirculated air and are changed at regular intervals, the association said.
What that doesn’t address is the overhead vents themselves, which carry germs transmitted by people’s hands. Health professionals advise moving vents so they blow on hands, not on the mouth, face or nose. The humidity in aircraft cabins is low, too, usually less than 20 percent. (In homes, it is usually above 30 percent.) While this poses no serious health risk, according to the World Health Organization, it can cause discomfort to the nasal passages and the skin.