3 Steps to germ-proof your airplane seat

29 February 2024
3 Steps to germ-proof your airplane seat

It’s the season for colds and flu, plus COVID and the newer-to-awareness virus: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). According to one medical officer of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Network, patients are coming into clinics and testing positive for both COVID and the flu. Apparently, having one or more is now an option―it’s no longer a tripledemic either, it’s a quadrademic (is that even a word?), because a fourth illness―superimposed bacterial infection―has been exacerbating an already challenging virus season and putting vulnerable patients in the hospital. 

As I think back to my recent two-week round battling COVID, treating it could have been much more confusing if I’d had the flu or a bacterial infection on top of COVID.

In all this news, you might be wondering when you board, “exactly how germy is my airplane seat?”

You’d be smart to wonder too, in 2023, 9 out of 10 high-touch points failed swab tests with a germ-detection device in one plane’s main cabin and lavatories. It surprised me to discover there are no regulations around how clean airplanes have to be either―that’s determined by the airline with these typical ‘standards’:

  • Turn clean is for domestic and shorter flights before the next flight.
  • Deep cleaning can take place anytime a plane is sitting for at least eight hours.
Traveler with a disinfecting spray bottle

Flight attendants who spoke with CBC crews said that there is typically less than 15 minutes to complete a turn clean, which explains why you are seeing staff working their way back from the boarding door as passengers are deplaning.

I don’t know about you, but 15 minutes to clean an entire aircraft is what my grandmother would call “a lick and a promise’. There’s not much beyond a bare superficial clean happening, which could explain why I often find candy between the seats and wrappers under the seat in front of me.

Let’s start with a list of an airplane’s cleanest and germiest parts, shall we?

Cleanest and Germiest Parts of an Airplane

We’ll start on a positive note – the cleanest parts of a plane are typically:

  • Toilet flush handle/button
  • Instruction card (in the seat back pocket)
  • Lavatory air nozzles

And the dirtiest:

  • Seat back tray
  • Air vent nozzles
  • Lavatory door handle
  • Lavatory sink tap handle
  • Arm and headrests
  • Seatbelt buckles
  • Seat back pocket
  • Unsealed blankets and pillows

In a recent report on cabin tests, all of these tested positive for the presence of bacteria, yeast, mold, and E.coli and staff. Yuck, just yuck.

3 Steps to thoroughly disinfect your seat

1. Pack your own disinfecting wipes

I keep a little pile of these single-use disinfecting wipes in all my bags, especially my travel backpack. Some airlines (thank you United) still hand them out when you board, but most have stopped.

Look for a minimum of 70% alcohol content on the ingredients list.

Personally, I don’t care if they smell like rubbing alcohol, that’s sort of a plus for me, but you choose.

Pro tip: Have your wipes out and ready! I recommend having three. 

When you’re feeling rushed to get seated so they can close the boarding doors, it helps to have your wipes in hand and ready to go.

2. Wipe these areas

After you stow your bag and get into your row, unwrap and unfold your wipes (personally, I like to have three and I’ll explain)

Brush the first two wipes back and forth over each of these areas (in this order, so you can sit and not annoy the flight attendants):

  1. Armrests (on both sides of your seat, including any control buttons)
  2. Seatbelt clasp (now you can turn around and sit)
  3. Overhead buttons and air vent nozzle (go ahead and turn that on too – it may help disperse airborne particles in the air near you)
  4. Window, frame, and shade (if you’re by one)
  5. Touch screen (if you have one)
  6. Tray table

Don’t bother with these areas:

  • Seat back pockets – these are the most germ-infested areas on a plane, so avoid touching them!
  • A cloth seat – disinfectant wipes don’t work on cloth seats and just make your tush damp.

Pro tip: If you’re concerned about nasty seats (like the passengers who sat in urine for hours), carry a light waterproof seat cover or trash bag to sit on.

3. Clean your hands

Use your third wipe, so you don’t have to touch your bag for another one, to clean your hands and wrists after your disinfecting job.

Pro tip: Stuff all the wipes and wrapping into a single packet and hold it ready for the flight attendants. They often come around for a pre-flight trash pickup.

Now look around you

Now that your area is clean, look around you and take a peek at your fellow passengers. 

Research has shown that you have an 80% chance of getting infected with something if only one of the 11 people nearest you is sick. 

That’s 80%!

If anyone near you coughs or sneezes or even looks like they may want to cough or sneeze, you can bet I put on my mask.

When you visit the lavatory

When you visit the lavatory, be sure to wipe the bathroom latch before entering. When you’re finished, thoroughly wash your hands before leaving and use the paper towel or your wipe to open the door again.

When you deplane

Most people head to the nearest restroom when they deplane, and in this case, it’s the perfect idea. 

As you’re leaving the plane, you’re walking through the air breathed by all the other passengers. Keep your hands to yourself and head straight for the bathroom to wash them thoroughly.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.