Should people fly with an infectious disease?

Gary Pool was standing in the jetway, waiting to board his flight to Texas, when he remembered that the change in air pressure often caused him sinus problems.

He quickly grabbed a pill out of his carry-on and swallowed it with the last dregs in his water bottle. Unfortunately, the pill made it partway down and stuck in his throat. Pool was seized with a horrible coughing fit, his eyes watering, gasping for air, all the while inching forward in the jetway and onto the plane.

He reached his seat, still coughing and trying to recover. His seatmate was already there. She took one look at him and recoiled in horror.

“Great! Just great!” she fumed. “I get stuck by somebody sick!” Pool tried to say, “No, no, I’m not sick…“ but she turned away in disgust and wouldn’t listen to his explanation.

Although he got some water from the flight attendant and recovered quickly, he said having to sit by such an unpleasant seatmate made for a very long flight.

“Who knows?” Pool says. “If she ever got sick after that, I mean ever, I’m sure she blamed it on me.”

Although in this case the woman freaked out for nothing, the worries aren’t always unfounded. Passengers travel while sick. And sick passengers infect other travelers.

Everyone is aware of the passengers who knowingly or unknowingly traveled with the Ebola virus, causing an uproar, quarantines of many passengers and a massive tracking effort of those who may have been exposed to the disease. But what about milder illnesses, those folks who travel with just colds or the flu? You’ve probably sat next to someone who is sniffling or coughing and blowing their nose the entire flight.

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But if it’s just a head cold, should they reschedule their whole trip? Most people probably wouldn’t find it practical after factoring in work schedules, the cost of changing the flight, and the other arrangements already in place. But surrounding passengers may not appreciate that.

So when you hear someone coughing or sneezing, do you automatically think those germs are going right into the recirculated system? Do you think you can almost see the germs coming right out of the air vents?

But is this true? Not really, as one pilot explains:

Filthy, germ-laden, rotten, disgusting, wretched, skanky, rancid, putrid, fetid and fart-filled are just a few of the adjectives used to describe cabin air, and legion are the accounts of flyers allegedly made ill by microscopic pathogens circulating throughout a plane. In reality, the air is very clean.

Studies have shown that a crowded airplane is no more germ-laden than other enclosed spaces — and usually less — and there’s a total changeover of air every two or three minutes, far more frequently than occurs in offices, movie theaters or classrooms.

But the belief that germs are easily spread through the air system is hard to debunk. People have believed that fallacy for a long time, and it’s hard to change that perception.

A study was published by a team of microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University in Alabama about germs on planes, and the results are, well, gross. In an article in USA Today titled “Five Myths about Germs on Airplanes,” they report how long germs can last on surfaces. Researchers tested six types of bacteria and learned that MRSA could last for up to 168 hours (seven days) on the back pocket of an airplane chair, while E. coli could remain active for 96 hours (four days) on the armrest.

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It also states that the air in the cabin isn’t the problem.

The real problems lie on the chair upholstery, the tray table, the armrests and the toilet handle, where bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can live for up to a week on airplanes that aren’t properly cleaned.

Although bacteria lived longer on porous surfaces and for shorter periods of time on hard plastic surfaces, those plastic surfaces were the most efficient at transmitting it to the next set of hands. Think of an armrest, the remote control or window shade, as well as the door handles of the bathroom.

Sanitizing travel kits are sold by companies such as Lysol, Neem and Sanitopia, but any type of sanitizing wipe will do. I always carry them when I travel and thoroughly wipe down everything, including the tray table, magazine pocket, seat belt buckle, the armrest, the recline button and the reading light button. I have had people look at me like I’m crazy.

I’ve also had people say, “That’s a great idea! Do you have an extra one of those wipes?” Frequently, when I put the tray table down to wipe it, I’ve found coffee marks, pretzel crumbs and other unidentifiable smears. It’s proof right there that these germy surfaces haven’t been touched.

It’s a fact that travelers carry germs and people travel while they are sick. We can only try to protect ourselves the best we can and use any and all preventative measures available to us.

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Christy Wood

Christy Wood is a writer specializing in transportation topics. She lives in Salem, Ore.

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