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Crewed Talk: Let’s Have a Serious Talk about Germs in the Cabin


Several weeks ago, when I pointed to crew members as a mostly ignored vulnerability re: infectious diseases, I was ahead of the game. This is no longer true.

The Bad News: Fears of Ebola on airplanes are no longer theoretical.

The Good News: Airlines are changing their tune about crews wearing gloves and the CDC has issued crew-specific advisories.

Although we’ve a ways to go, everyone is taking in-flight germ spread more seriously. So let’s look at some of the fresh concerns, starting with a few of the aircraft germ myths in this USA Today article.

1) The Most Dangerous Health Hazard in the Air Is the Cabin Air Itself

I’m glad they mention this, as I see it repeated enthusiastically, even (literally) today. These always self-assured claims like, “now that flights are non-smoking they never refresh the air” slay me. So. Not. True.

2) The Bagged Airline Pillows and Blankets Are OK to Use

The important word is bagged. Sure, you mostly find them on premium international routes (all cabins) and first-of-the-day Business or First Class flights, but if they’re not fresh ones, of course they’re filthy. Duh. Yet the USA Today article specifically says “bagged,” then only quotes the vice president and COO of Medjet Assist — someone who wouldn’t actually have special insight into how the blankets are laundered and who mostly dodged the “bagged” issue in his answer.

Most flight attendants doubt even the sealed ones get washed before packaging. Yes, we can be a cynical bunch! I think if a company is going to precisely fold and plastic seal a blanket, though, why wouldn’t they actually wash it first? Laundering seems like the easy part of that process! If we’re going to suspect these packaged blankets aren’t washed, why would we trust that our hotel sheets and pillows are washed? This puts me in a minority, but I defend it as a good question.

Whether these blankets are washed to a “standard” is a different story, but I do think they are washed. I won’t test my belief by licking one of these blankets, but if it’s plastic sealed I won’t treat it like a petri dish either. I live on the edge like that!

3) Airlines Clean the Aircraft between Flights

I’m sorry, what? Ahem. We do clean the cabin, but not in a way that would matter to germs.

I’ve been asked about some of the grossest things I’ve personally seen/heard of on an airplane. There’s a special category of stories involving a certain impoverished nation and passengers who attempt to use inappropriate parts of the plane as a bathroom, but other than that, what I’d have to offer is an amalgamation of general illness stories you could probably guess — ones I’d rather forget about.

Just do yourself a favor and never dive an ungloved hand blindly into a seatback pocket or eat directly off a tray table, alright? And definitely don’t yell at me about a “disgusting” lavatory that, it turns out, is perfectly clean, especially if you’re just going to “secretly” leave one in such a state that I have to lock it off for the rest of the flight.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about whether we can really trust whether or not the Frontier plane that carried an Ebola-infected passenger is safe for use. “Would you fly on it?” someone recently asked me. I’ve heard plenty of crew members say no way, but when you look at how extensively it was decontaminated all I can say is:

We should all be more mindful about germs of planes, but not just because of Ebola. I know colleagues who’ve picked up MRSA onboard long before the outbreak. I wish amenity kits included antibacterial wipes. If flight attendants airlines were smart, they’d start selling them onboard! It’s about time airlines were more supportive of crew members who choose to wear gloves, but we should keep the Ebola-specific fears in perspective. After all, as someone on Twitter pointed out:


[Photo: iStock]

Comments are Closed.
harvyk October 26, 2014

IMHO, a plane is no cleaner than any other piece of PUBLIC transport. I guess the lack of graffiti everywhere can lure us into thinking it's something a bit more special. That said, I've flown many a flight, including in some pretty disgusting cabins (worst I've seen was from Hong Kong to Singapore, lets just say, people didn't exactly have very good aim into the bowl), and not once have I caught anything which I'd attribute back to the flight. I have noticed that in general, US carriers tend not to have the cleanest cabins (something about saving every penny / very high usage demands they place on their planes not really leaving time for fleet presentation). All that said, it's public transport, and I probably wouldn't be eating a donut directly off a seat in a train either.

Indelaware October 26, 2014

"Fears of Ebola on airplanes are no longer theoretical." The problem is that these fears are being fueled by those who have false theories that Ebola can be spread by casual contact or by asymptomatic people. Government, airlines, and airline workers should speak out against those who take a nonscientific approach rather than fueling the misinformation. Frontier should have said, "We are cleaning our plane because of passenger fear, it is a waste of time, but we are doing it only because we care about our passenger's feelings. If we cared only about their health, we wouldn't bother cleaning it."

mmff October 23, 2014

Old news (for me) but interesting post anyway. "Crewed Talk" is by far the most interesting column at FlyerTalk, I truly like reading about your perspective on these issues and comparing it to mine as a passenger. Good job, Sarah!

alphaod October 23, 2014

Actually a lot of non-US airlines do offer antibacteria wipes and they're free. You can ask for several. I usually wipe everything down that isn't fabric. In the end the wipes always turn out black.