Germs on a Plane

Grab a window seat and stay put

Are you a fan of the window seat? Good choice.

Sitting in a window seat—and staying seated for the duration of the flight—may be your best bet for not getting sick from fellow passengers, found Emory and Georgia Tech researchers in a study published in the March 19 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sick passengers will most likely not transmit droplet-spread infections to passengers seated farther than two seats beside them, and one row in front or in back. Vicki Hertzberg, an Emory nursing professor, and Howard Weiss, a Georgia Tech mathematics professor, assessed rates and routes of possible germ transmission during flights. Team members monitored specific areas of the passenger cabin during five round trips from the East to West Coast, recording movements of passengers and crew. They collected air samples and surface samples from areas most likely to harbor microbes. The study, funded in partnership with Boeing, used the data to create thousands of simulated flight scenarios.

“Respiratory diseases are often spread through close contact,” says Hertzberg. “We now know a lot about how passengers move around on flights.” Around 40 percent of passengers never leave their seats, another 40 percent get up once during the flight, and 20 percent get up two or more times. Also, people closer to the aisle moved around more: About 80 percent of those in aisle seats got up during the flight, 60 percent in middle seats, and 40 percent in window seats. Passengers who leave their seats are up for an average of five minutes. Another way germs are spread, researchers found, was through exposure to viruses that remain on surfaces such as tray tables, seat belts, and handles: Fliers “can eliminate this risk of indirect transmission through hand hygiene and keeping their hands away from their nose and eyes.”

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