Travel Health: Wellness Stakes on a Plane
With the holiday season fast approaching, it seems like everyone is trying to catch a plane somewhere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 1 billion people travel by commercial aircraft every year and predicts that that number will double in the next two decades. All those people and all those germs mean that travel health remains a serious issue for both the passengers in the air and the cleaning crew on the ground.
The Good News
For a long time, common wisdom held that the cabin air recirculated during a flight negatively affected travelers' health. However, the CDC reports that all commercial jets built after the late 1980s recirculate as little as 10 percent of cabin air, passing it through a series of filters 20–30 times an hour. Newer planes go one step further: they employ a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that captures 99.9 percent of particles, including viruses and bacteria. This recirculation means that the air passengers breathe is clean and relatively microbe free while they're in flight.
The Bad News
When the plane is on the ground, however, and the ventilation system is turned off, the air is not filtered. This can negatively affect the health of passengers who may sit through long delays on the tarmac without the benefit of circulated air. It can also affect the health of the cleaning crew, who always works with the system turned off. While airborne particles remain a threat to travel health when the circulation system is idle, the bigger danger is not what passengers and the cleaning crew breathe, but what they touch. According to the American Society for Microbiology, some nasty bacteria can survive in airplane cabins for up to a week. They lurk in seat pockets and on tray tables, window shades, and armrests—surfaces nearly every person who boards a plane will touch. The airplane cleaning crew has to make sure to hit all of these touch points when cleaning the aircraft.
Welcome Home! What'd You Bring Me?
So what kind of nasty bugs are found on a plane, and how long do they hang around? Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can survive for several days on certain surfaces, according to a study from Auburn University, and the CDC notes that the measles virus remains active and highly contagious in the air for up to two hours—and measles sufferers tend to cough and sneeze a lot. Because of these health threats, the World Health Organization outlines cleaning protocols for aviation, suggesting removing litter and wiping and deep-cleaning hard surfaces in between flights.
For great tools that thoroughly clean an airplane to keep both passengers and cleaning crews safe, click here.
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Amy Milshtein covers design, facility management and business topics for a variety of trade publications and consumer magazines.
Her work has won several awards, most recently a regional silver Azbee Award of Excellence.
She lives in Portland, OR with her family and Clyde, a 15-lb tabby cat. Once an avid hiker, these days she finds herself on the less-challenging -but-still-exciting 'creaky knees' trails.