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Essential tips: How to stay healthy on a plane

Should you cancel travel plans because of coronavirus?

Update: Well this decision seems to have been made for us at the moment with airlines cancelling flights all over the world and strict requirements to self isolate for 2 weeks upon arrival (here in New Zealand anyway).

Stay safe friends, follow best hygiene practice, eat well and keep your distance from too many people.

This is still a relatively unknown virus. Current stats and reports do show that the majority of people who get it have mild enough symptoms to not require hospital treatment, and with the instructions to self quarantine, I hope it will be no more risky than influenza – which kills extraordinary numbers of people every year, I realise.

Wearing masks in Macau
A family wearing masks in Macau. Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Here’s an aside for some perspective: according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) the winter flu of 2018/19 in the United States affected 35.5 million people. Of those, 16.5 million went to the doctor with 490,600 ending up in hospital. In total 34,200 people died in the US alone last flu season yet there was no impact on travel or the economy.

But there are also some very good reasons to seriously consider postponing your upcoming travel plans – and not just because you might get sick.

At the time of writing the Louvre in Paris had reopened after three days when staff voted to stay closed out of fears of contracting the virus. They are not, and probably won’t be, the only attraction that might be closed, affecting your plans. Sports events are also being cancelled or postponed and so too the big travel trade convention, ITB Berlin.

Update: Disney parks all over the world are closed, just as an example of one attraction. Also governments are asking every person who arrives to self-isolate for 2 weeks, so that totally throws international travel plans away.

Louvre in Paris
It’d be disappointing to arrive in Paris and find the Louvre closed! Photo by Irina Ledyaeva on Unsplash.

So even if you are not in the high risk category of being elderly or with compromised health issues, there are other things to weigh up around the impact the virus might have on closures of sites, flight cancelations, sports games or other gatherings where people in their thousands are due to flock, or new quarantine regulations that could come into effect anywhere at any time, disrupting your holiday plans.

The healthiest seat on a plane

But some of us still have to fly. We have work or family commitments, or quite honestly we just have a holiday booked and don’t want to cancel it by erring on the side of panic.

So if you’ve decided you’re still going to travel (I have friends off to Bali next month and they are currently watching developments closely and will make a decision closer to the time), believe it or not, there are healthier seats to sit on a plane than others – which makes sense when you read why.

At least once on every flight I’ve been on, usually when I’m finally asleep, some bloke (it’s always a bloke) lets out the loudest sneeze in the world. You know it’s loud when it jolts you awake over the din of the engine noise! Sneezing and coughing is a frequent occurrence on a plane.

Another aside: if you are sneezing or coughing, you should wear a mask. This is how the Chinese have always operated. The ones you see in masks are keeping the rest of us from catching what they’ve got. So please minimise the risk to those round you, whether it’s just a common cold or an infectious virus by keeping your germs to yourself.

But back to the healthiest seat on the plane. Let’s presume your plane is configured 3-3 (or 3-3-3 if you are travelling long haul). The healthiest place to sit is the window seat. Why? Because statistically the aisle people get up and move about more, plus all the passengers that come and go to the bathroom or to stretch their legs will be brushing past you. If you want some tips for scoring this seat without paying for it, you’ll like my post on 3 tips for getting the best seats on a plane.

Window seat on plane
The healthiest seat also affords the best views!

I read a study from Emory and Georgia Tech researchers published in March 2019 that found sick passengers will most likely not transmit droplet-spread infections to passengers seated more than two seats beside them and one row in front or in back. Ergo, the more tucked away you are, the safer you will be from flying germs.

They did a study from flights flying the five to six-hour route from East to West coast USA and found that about 80% of those in aisle seats got up during the flight, 60% in middle seats, and 40% in window seats.

Turn your air vent on you

Another tip: If your seat has a personal air vent above, turn it on and blow it on you. It’s a myth that airplanes recycle dirty air. In fact the filtration systems they use are quite advanced so blowing clean air onto you can actually provide a cone of protection. You’ll need to keep your hydration up because it is a dry air.

The germiest parts of a plane!

A company called Marketplace, in Canada, took 18 flights and examined 100 samples collected from the seatbelt, tray table, headrest, seat pocket and washroom handle. The results are revolting!

Tray table on plane
Wipe it down first! Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

They found that nearly half of the surfaces swabbed contained levels of bacteria or yeast and mould that could put a person at risk of infection. The most contaminated surface was the headrest. They also found e-coli – yep, faeces – in the seat pocket.

They found traces of staph on the tray tables, which implies they haven’t been cleaned with an antibacterial cleaner for a long time. I even read that planes don’t carry cleaner on board due to the flammable risk.

So how did these germs get there?

Because disgusting people do disgusting things on planes! Cabin crew and cleaners have reported finding everything from dirty nappies to used tampons in seat pockets! I can’t even.

Mum and baby on plane
Keep your seat clean and DON’T put the diaper in the seat pocket! Pic by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

How to ensure your seat area is clean

Just like hotel rooms, planes are often poorly cleaned due to the quick turn around time between flights, and are likely to be covered in icky germs – coronavirus or not!

Here is supermodel Naomi Campbell’s cleaning routine on every plane she flies on. I’m taking a leaf!

Wipe everything you’ll touch!

Take some antibacterial wipes and give your area a thorough once-over (and take a rubbish bag/plastic bag to dispose of your cloths. Do NOT give it to the air crew to dispose of. If it really does have contagious germs on it, you’ll have defeated the whole purpose of the wipes!)

Hand sanitiser is useful for all travel after you’ve been touching trolly handles, door handles, car doors…

I note Naomi also takes her own blanket and puts it on her chair. She even says she buys them at the airport and only uses them a few times. Ok, we of lower means don’t need to be quite so extravagant and can quite happily wash and reuse ours! Here are some comfy Cabeau travel blankets that can fold up into a pillow and has its own little handle. I sell them in my Travel Store for shipping NZ-wide.

I always travel with my own Cabeau memory foam travel pillow – and get sleep in economy! The cover is washable and it also means I don’t need to use the maybe-not-so-clean airplane pillow.

So the upshot of all this, coronavirus or not, is let’s all take a lesson from Naomi Campbell and give our seat and it’s surrounds (including air vent, remote control, seat belt buckle, tray table and head rest) a bloody good wipe down!

You might also like:

If you’re heading off on a long haul flight soon, here are some of my best suggestions and top tips for coping on a 15-17 hour+ flight!

And this is by far my most popular post on the blog: 12 things NOT to do on a cruise!

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!