In the past year, I have traveled to Phoenix, New Orleans, San Diego and Berlin, Germany. While some flights have been more enjoyable than others, I’ve had my fair share of middle seats, disruptive passengers and bumpy rides. However, these things don’t hold a candle to the grimy feeling I get trying to determine how long it’s been since the seat I’m in was last disinfected and cleaned, or the shudder I get every time the toilet flushes and the smell that emanates from the bathroom seemingly tends to permeate the entire cabin for at least a couple minutes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that people are more likely to get sick on planes because the cabin air humidity is under 20%, compared to home humidity which reaches 30% or higher.
I conducted some research to find out how often aircrafts are wiped down. A July 2019 article by Marc Stewart on ThePointsGuy.com writes that “aircraft cleaning is typically divided into three phases: daily, overnight and long-term.”
Stewart received details about cleaning routines from representatives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
All of the airlines contacted confirmed that “limited” cleaning occurs between flights, which includes lavatories, tray tables and seats. Overnight, planes supposedly are vacuumed, and alleys and walls get special attention. Deep cleaning, which usually involves washing tray tables, overhead bins and ceiling, happens every 30-45 days. The thoroughness of these cleanings largely depends on destinations and outside contractors, according to the article.
In an October 2018 investigation into airline cleanliness, Canada’s Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) sent staff to collect more than 100 samples on 18 flights. They swabbed various areas and discovered that many of the surfaces were “not cleaned well or often enough.”
Microbiologist Keith Warriner, who analyzed the samples, found that the top five areas of the aircraft with highest bacterial counts included seatbelts, tray tables, bathroom handles, seat pockets and headrests. Headrests led the pack for the highest aerobic bacteria count, with Warriner also finding E. coli on this specific area.
To say my research didn’t surprise me would be a lie. However, making sure your traveling workers are equipped with the proper personal protective equipment and prepared for long flights should be part of your overall processes. UPMC Health Plan’s seven tips for long flights are a good place to start:
1. Keep moving.
More than 300 million travelers each year develop blood clots or deep-vein thrombosis on long flights. Encourage your workers to get up and move after departure and to wear compression socks if needed.
2. Wipe down your surroundings.
Sticky tray tables and stained seats are visible, but the germs are not. Carry alcohol-based wipes to stay clean and eliminate your exposure to bacteria as much as possible.
3. Boost your immunity.
Are you flying to countries more readily affected by diseases such as malaria or cholera? Make sure everyone on your staff is up-to-date on shots, especially when traveling to high-risk areas.
4. Stay hydrated.
Dehydration affects sleep and could make jet lag worse, leading to an unsuccessful business trip. Encourage workers to drink water before and after flights.
5. Get sufficient sleep.
Sleep deprivation could weaken the immune system, leading to illness. UPMC recommends at least eight hours of sleep before take off.
6. Wash your hands.
Provide hand sanitizers or recommend workers carry some during travel. If washing hands isn’t an option, a sanitizer with at least a 60% alcohol base can stop the spread of germs.
7. Use air vents.
UPMC wraps up this list with the following recommendation, “Always set your ventilation to a medium setting so that infectious diseases don’t settle into your personal space and are instead blown away by the air current.”
Next time you or a worker are planning to travel via airplane, remember that the middle seat should be the least of your concerns. Bacteria counts are sky high, and not taking precautions could lead to a rough landing when it comes to illness.