The 6 grubbiest places on planes and in airports

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Going on a plane sometime soon? Make sure to take your antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser. What you're about to learn will appal and disgust you and you'll never see plane travel in the same light again.

TravelMath let a microbiologist loose on four planes and five airports to discover just how unhygienic the cabins of those big iron birds are and the spots to avoid in airports. You're probably assuming the bathrooms are the biggest offenders, but you'll be alarmed to learn the filthiest place is where our food sits.

So, here goes...

1. Tray Tables

Your food tray is placed on it, but you must never ever let your actual food touch it. Plane tray tables harbour far more bacteria that any other part of the plane and it's the very thing you have the most contact with, other than the fabric of your seat.

You'll be disgusted to know that tray tables were found to have nearly eight times the colony-forming units of bacteria (CFU) per square inch than your toilet seat at home, coming in at 2155 CFU/sq. in. compared to 127 for your toilet seat.

TIME spoke to Dr. Charles Gerba, microbiologist at the University of Arizona, who said "...the trays he's tested through research have had cold viruses, human parainfluenza viruses, norovirus (which can cause diarrhoea and vomiting) and the superbug MRSA, which causes skin infections."

What to do: Take antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser with you. Please.

2. Airport bubbler button

That humble bubbler might save a kid's meltdown thanks to not having a bottle of water to board with, but beware the button. The median reading given in the samples was 2155 CFU/sq. in. which is a pretty hefty load of bacteria.

What to do: Use a wipe or tissue between hand and button.


3. Airvents

Most of us adjust the air vent once or twice during a flight as the temperatures and air pressures change. It stands to reason that these aren't cleaned as often as other parts of the plane so people settle in their seats and adjust the airflow, with all the bacteria still on their hands that they boarded with.

The TravelMath swabs revealed 285 CFU per square inch, which is nowhere near as high as the tray tables, but still a significant number and more even than the flush buttons on the plane lavatories.

What to do: Make sure you're using your hand sanitiser every now and then.

4. Toilet flush buttons

No surprises here, apart from the fact toilet flush buttons aren't in the top spot for harbouring bacteria. It's heartening to know that no super-awful fecal coliform bacteria was found during the study, but the reading was far from zero at 265 CFU/sq. in.

What to do: Wash your hands well, even if it's hard because the water shuts off or you can barely fit your hands under the tap. Oh, and use a paper towel to open the inside latch of the door.

5. Seat belt buckles

There's no escaping seat belts on planes - they're compulsory for take off and landing and during times of turbulence and they're there to keep us as secure and safe as possible. With each person touching the buckles at least twice during a flight, and kids perhaps even more as they tend to fiddle with them, TravelMath measured the bacteria levels at 230 CFU/sq. in.

What to do: Again, hand sanitiser, folks.

6. Airport toilet locks

It stands to reason that the internal locks on toilet stall doors would be laden with bacteria. What is surprising is that the median reading is so much lower than the other places on the list, at just 70 CFU/sq. in.

What to do: Use a piece of clean toilet tissue to open the lock.

Armed with some wipes and hand sanitiser, it seems you can do your best to avoid many of the nasties on flights. It's a shame we can't do much about the very low humidity on flights; that's what causes the majority of ailments.

If a little context is what you need, TravelMath compiled a list of every day things we might touch, just for comparison.

Photo: TravelMath