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Five filthy places to steer clear of on your flights

August 16, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Beware! These are not geographical destinations or seedy hotels – these are places on aircraft notorious for harbouring swarms of germs. Try to avoid them.

TIME magazine has published a list of five, taken largely from hygiene investigations performed by TravelMath, which runs a useful site for calculating flight distances, flight times and a lot of other information.

Some places on aeroplanes and airports you can’t avoid, but you can take precautions.

To find out just how dirty airports and commercial airliners really are, TravelMath dispatched a microbiologist to take samples from five airports and four flights. While the results no doubt vary according to airline, the consensus from the study is that airports and aeroplanes are almost certainly dirtier than your home.

Tray table nasties


At airports, drinking fountain buttons and the locks on toilet stalls are among the least sanitary surfaces you can touch, the research indicated.

Aboard aircraft, watch out for:

1. Tray tables.

“Surprisingly, it is the one surface that our food rests on – the tray table – that was the dirtiest of all the locations and surfaces tested,” TravelMath says. It was dirtiest by far. To avoid giving bacteria direct access to your mouth, try to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table. It’s also advisable to bring a small bottle of hand sanitiser along for any other dirty surface you may touch along your journey.

2. Air vents and seatbelt buckles 

TravelMath testing found higher levels of bacteria on these than on aircraft toilet flush buttons – perhaps because every passenger touches their buckle at least twice during the flight and crew clean them less often than the toilets.

Bugs under the microscope in survey


3. Toilets 

These are cleaned periodically and disinfected overnight and between long flights – but even so, 50 passengers per toilet is not uncommon and you had better hope your fellow passengers are clean and hygienic. Try using a paper towel to operate the latch on the way out, rather than touching it with your bare hands.

4. Seatback pockets

These can be harder to clean because they are often made of fabric rather than having a hard surface. Some passengers stuff unsavoury items into the seatback pockets. Crushed coffee cups, used tissues, even soiled nappies. Who knows what has been festering within? Don’t go there!

5. Aisle seats

An aisle seat is more convenient when you want to visit the toilet – though you may have to put up with people clambering over you as they make similar journeys. But aisle seats have two disadvantages. Objects in the overhead lockers, bottles for instance, are more likely to tumble out on your head because of careless fellow travellers or air turbulence.

Another risk is microbes. The tops of aisle seats collect germs from every person who walks by them and holds on for support, experts say. Take care! TIME magazine cites research that found people sitting in aisle seats were far more likely to contract norovirus, though TravelMath doesn’t seem to have looked there.

To summarise, here is’s ranking of the dirtiest places and surfaces on aeroplanes and at airports. The results are expressed in CFUs per square inch, a measure used in microbiology to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample. CFU stands for colony-forming unit.

  • Tray table – 2,155 CFU/sq. in.
  • Drinking fountain buttons – 1,240 CFU/sq. in.
  • Overhead air vent – 285 CFU/sq. in.
  • Lavatory flush button – 265 CFU/sq. in.
  • Seatbelt buckle – 230 CFU/sq. in.
  • Bathroom stall locks – 70 CFU/sq. in.

For details and methodology see:

Written by Peter Needham

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