Some of the most exciting babymoon destinations require air travel. Frequent fliers become used to boarding a plane that appears tidy and clean but a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology seems to indicate it’s a good idea to disinfect airplane surfaces in and around your seat before settling in for the journey.

The threat of airborne diseases spreading through air-tight plane cabins makes headlines on a rather frequent basis but little mention is made of illnesses that spread through contact contamination. Contact contamination occurs when a passenger touches an armrest, tray table, or another surface last touched by a previous passenger with the flu, the measles, or nasty stomach bugs contracted after traveling to exotic lands. It’s these surface contaminants that interested Kiril Vaglenov, of Auburn University in Alabama. He describes his study as “the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem.”

Vaglenov didn’t test surfaces in real airplanes but he did get a major airline to supply him with six different materials used throughout airplane cabins: armrest fabric, leather, metal toilet flush button, plastic tray table, seat-pocket cloth, and window shade material. He then applied two common disease-causing bacteria to these surfaces before subjecting the materials to environmental conditions typical of air travel.

Over time, the bacterial level of each surface was tested to discover how long these contaminants survived. The two germiest surfaces proved to be:

  • MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) survived 168 hours (7 days) on seat-pocket surfaces
  • E. coli O157: H7 lasted 96 hours (4 days) on the armrest fabric

Vaglenov says these long-lasting surface contaminants “pose a risk of transmission via skin contact.” Further study is already underway using other pathogens, including bacteria that cause tuberculosis. The Vaglenov research team’s long-term expectation is the development of more effective cleaning and disinfecting protocols for optimum safety during air travel.

Most major airlines use a three-phase cleaning process based on how long a cleaning crew has between flights:

  • Quick transit cleaning, employed when planes are on the ground for just a short period of time.
  • Overnight cleaning, when long layovers allow a more in-depth cleaning job.
  • Deep cleaning, done when planes are grounded for longer periods of time.

Regional airlines may carry a dozen different passengers per seat per day, depending on flight schedule. A quick cleaning of passenger-area surfaces between so many short flights may not be as effective as some passengers prefer. International flights are usually cleaner because just one person remains in one seat for extended flights and layovers last longer for refueling.


  1. “Bacteria Can Linger on Airplane Surfaces for Days.” asm2014 / ASMevents. American Society for Microbiology. May 20, 2014. Web. Jun 2, 2014.
  2. Yeung, SSM, et al. “World at work: Aircraft cabin cleaning.” Occupational & Environmental Medicine. The BMJ Publishing Group Ltd. 2005. Web. Jun 2, 2014.
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