It’s Germ Warfare Up There

Airplane seats

There are things about airplanes only cleaning crews know. That’s the good part. There also are potent cocktails of germs that nobody can see. So much teaming bacteria that they ought to have their own ZIP code.

We’ve all seen diapers changed over seatback tray tables and on empty seats. And then there’s that entire shitscape of lavatories.

Tin-eared television like NBC’s Today show know they can punch us in the gut with headlines like, “The Dirty Truth of Air Travel.” And this week they jawed over germs again while looking for the bodies. Character is plot.

The filth started before the NBC team even boarded the aircraft. Armed with test kit swabs they baptized check-in touch-screens, TSA bins and pretty much everything else we’re likely to touch while flying. Microbiologists analyzed the swabs. Guess what? The results are a filigree of bacteria.

The most creepy-crawlers were in the TSA bins where we toss our shoes, laptops, coins, et cetera, en route to the X-ray machine. NBC found fecal matter along for the ride.

“We’re talking about skin or soft-tissue infections, which can potentially lead to overwhelming infections in your bloodstream,” an ER doc told the popular morning show.

Next, the team boarded the aircraft for a courtside seat to nucleic acids replicating themselves. But all they saw were “crumbs all over aisle floors and mysterious stains on their seats.”

The serious, serious offenders are tray tables where we place food, laptops, books and other belongings too dear for the overhead bin. But also “filthy” are seat belts that we all must buckle. Reporters found “human bacteroides,” which the ER doc said “live in our gut and our intestines” and can cause “serious infections” from a single touch if their home is not your gut.

NBC took 13 samples on three different flights and nine demonstrated harmful germs on a meals-on-wheels tour.

Airlines say they wipe down tray tables and other surfaces in between flights, but we all know better. Turnaround times often provide just enough time to empty seatback pockets.

And that segues into perhaps the worst offenders. Seatbacks are the perfect place to stash a soiled Pampers, snot-filled tissues, a loaded air-sickness bag and a quarter cup of used chewing tobacco.

Another study conducted by Auburn University found that harmful and potentially deadly bacteria like MRSA and E. coli survive for days on arm rests, toilet flush handles, tray tables, window shades, seats and seat pockets.

A grad student at Auburn conducted the two-year study, which was funded by the FAA’s Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center. He found MRSA survived 168 hours on the seat-back pocket; E. coli thrived for 96 hours on the armrest.

Next up at Auburn is a study to see how long pathogens that cause diseases such as tuberculosis or MERS can survive the cabin.

The Tarmac’s View: Airlines do take precautions – some better than others and some days better than others. The best we can do is wash our hands frequently, and always when getting off an aircraft. Use hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes like a hall monitor. Treat the seat pouch like the cesspool it is. Many experts suggest avoiding airline blankets and pillows. Perhaps airlines should have wipes like the kind supermarkets keep near cart storage areas.


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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • wiredboy10003 at 7:06pm June 27, 2014

    I saw that segment. I think you could find traces of bad stuff almost anywhere. My first thought was to sneak into the Today Show and swab their chairs. I’ll bet no one would ever sit down for an interview again. I mean really. How many segments have they had over the years with cute babies and moms who had just changed their diapers?

  • bluefive5 at 3:38am June 29, 2014

    My body can fight germs but what about industrial pest chemicals being sprayed in the cabin over each row of passengers by FA’s?In January on Malaysia Air on the way to Columbo – Sri Lanka, the seat belt light came on and then a non-english announcement. Next we were hit with cans of bug spray. Smelled like the product “Raid”. It was all over our clothes, hair and skin. Silver lining– after 10 days in the jungle and rain forest of Sri Lanka; not one tick or skeeter bite!

  • garydpdx at 4:38am June 30, 2014

    Agreed, there is an ick factor to flying. But consider that many people advocate having kids develop their immune systems with weekends at farms, playing with puppies, rolling in dirt. As a gold level frequent flier (and silver on a second alliance), this exposure and a half-wit fitness program leaves me in the healthiest years of my life! 🙂

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