It's good news and bad news for international travelers when it comes to disease transmission. For one thing, the US Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) recently debunked fears about diseases spreading in the air supply of commercial planes; newer aircraft reportedly recirculate up to half of cabin air with outside air, passing it through a series of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters up to 30 times an hour. “As a result,” said the CDC, “the air cabin environment is not conducive to the spread of most infectious diseases.”
However, results from a recent study, which was released in May, were presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual conference, and reveal that disease-causing bacteria such as escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can linger for up to a week within plane cabins, on tray tables, arm rests, seat pockets and window shades. The MRSA bacteria apparently lives the longest, lasting 168 hours, followed by E. coli, which was shown to survive for up to 96 hours.
The research was conducted by the university’s Department of Biological Sciences, with funding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) via the Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center, and it breaks down how long various bacteria last on specific surfaces, with a focus on MRSA and E. coli, as these are two of the most worrisome infections at the moment, according to health officials. MRSA was shown to last for seven days on cloth, six on rubber, five on plastic and four on metal, while E. coli was shown to last for four days on rubber, three days on plastic and two on the flusher in the onboard toilet. Discouragingly, the research also suggested that while the diseases did not linger for as long on plastic as they did on other materials, plastic provided one of the most effective jumping-off points with which the infections could be transferred to the hands of passengers.
Dr Richard Dawood, travel health expert with the Telegraph newspaper’s travel section, has pointed out the difficult of maintaining a hygienic state, as people are as likely to pick up germs on the way to the airport as they are on planes. “For most people,” he said, “a journey affords a host of other opportunities to acquire infection: in the taxi to the airport, on buses and trains, in crowded departure lounges, and plenty of close contact with people at your destination. Those in-flight snacks should be avoided until you have had a chance to wash your hands.” He also cited the ‘virtually moisture-free’ conditions of plane cabins as a perfect breeding ground for germs, as humans are more susceptible to colds, infections and viruses that ‘thrive in conditions of low-humidity’. “Coughing passengers can spread infection to those immediately around them,” he said, “and in a small number of cases of more severe illnesses – such as TB – are known to have spread this way.”
The airline industry maintains that cabins are scrupulously cleaned, with Jean Medina, speaking on behalf of Airlines for America (the trade group for the biggest US airlines), saying that ‘airlines know that cleanliness of aircraft is important to customers when they make their travel decisions’. “As such,” she continued, “airlines work continuously to keep planes clean.” Despite this, health experts suggest that this is still not enough to mitigate the threat of germs.
So, how can travellers help themselves and others? Dr Dawood advises travelling with an alcoholic hand gel or antibacterial wipes, using a nasal saline spray to maintain moist nasal passages, being selective with food sources on planes, and staying as hydrated as possible.