Don't Touch These Spots On An Airplane

Once a great novelty, air travel is now an average part of life for many Americans, especially during the holidays, the busiest travel season in the country. That said, flying does a number on your body by inhibiting your immune system because of stress, dehydration, low cabin humidity, and throwing off your circadian rhythm.

Obviously, though, the main concern for health on airplanes has always been germs. The risk of getting sick while flying predominantly stems from touching so many high-traffic surfaces and being in close proximity with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. Many of these locations aren't sanitized frequently enough, so the bacteria that survive for hours can accumulate quickly.

In fact, areas of airports and airplanes can be dirtier than even the nastiest places in your house, such as your toilet seat. And after touching one of these surfaces, you might then touch your face, mouth, phone, or even a complimentary pretzel, transmitting germs into your system. You can't necessarily avoid some of these things altogether, but you can try to make hygienic choices around them.

Tray tables

Travelmath got a microbiologist to swab areas around five airports and four planes to discover where bacteria really congregate, and the top spot might surprise you. They found an average of 2,155 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch on seat back tray tables, almost 10 times more than on the toilet flush button in the lavatories.

Other researchers have found cold viruses, noroviruses, human parainfluenza viruses, which can cause respiratory infections, and the superbug MRSA, which causes skin infections, living on airplane tray tables. Unfortunately, if you've ever seen someone change a baby's diaper on the tray table (it happens), you'll understand why this part of the airplane is notoriously nasty.

If you wipe down any part of your seating area when you sit on an airplane, ensure it's the tray table. You can also purchase tray table covers to avoid touching the tray at all. These machine-washable covers create a barrier between yourself and the germy tray.

Seatback pockets

Over the course of 18 flights, 100 samples were taken for a study conducted by CBC. Of the findings, one of the most worrisome samples revealed that E. coli was present in the seatback pocket samples. E. coli is a particularly dangerous bacteria that wrecks all kinds of havoc on the digestive system and intestines.

While some passengers might use seatback pockets to store magazines, books, and other small items, other people stash their trash, chewed gum, used tissues, filled air sickness bags, and even dirty diapers. Even if you would never dream of leaving such nasty garbage in your pocket, it doesn't mean other passengers haven't done it — even on the flight right before yours.

Suffice to say, overworked airplane crews and cleaning crews don't have enough time to deep clean a plane between flights. That extends especially to areas of the plane that are hard to clean thoroughly. Seatback pockets are, unfortunately, one of those areas.

Blankets and pillows

That's right, even the rarely seen complimentary blankies and pillows aren't safe from the germs of airplane life. Sure, a free pillow or blanket is usually welcome when you're trying to catch some z's, but only accept one if it's still sealed in plastic. Blankets and pillows that aren't sealed may be reused, meaning the blankets, pillows, or pillowcases aren't being washed between uses.

On long-haul flights, you are less likely to encounter this issue since each seat often comes with a sealed comfort kit. Even so, you should be more wary of products handed to you on an airplane.

Even though it takes up extra room, the only way to avoid questioning the sanitization of these products is to bring your own travel pillow or blanket. They'll be better quality than the freebie anyway. Just make sure to use a pillow and blanket that can be washed so they don't accumulate germs from your flights, or invest in something like Safe Travels Kit, which has antimicrobial (and monogrammed) pillowcases.

Air vents

So, the good news is that the airplane air vents are markedly cleaner than the tray tables, according to Travelmath. The bad news is that, all things considered, they're still pretty yucky.

While the air itself on airplanes is astonishingly clean, the air vents above your seat are not. We can safely assume the reason is that before boarding, folks walk through the airport, touching everything from door handles to water fountains to their germy tray tables. Then, when they get onto the plane, those same folks often reach for the air vent upon getting comfy in their seats.

Travelmath found that, on average, these vents have 285 colony-forming units per square inch, more than on the lavatory flush button. So it's even more reason to make good use of the sanitizing towelettes some airlines still hand out, bringing your own, or judiciously using hand sanitizer while on the plane.

Seatbelt buckles

Much like air vents, every passenger touches seatbelt buckles, and yet they are seldom cleaned–mostly because doing so would take so much time between flights. The quick cleaning turnaround between flights means trash is picked up, and things are straightened out but not necessarily cleaned.

The average buckle has 230 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch, according to Travelmath, making it the third germiest surface on the plane. Since so many passengers sit down and buckle without thinking about it, it doesn't necessarily occur to them to clean it first. We get it; it's hard to remember to do anything when you're scrambling to get seated to avoid holding up the line.

Like with the air vent, our best advice is to clean your hands after touching your seatbelt buckle. That includes any time you need to get out of your seat for whatever reason, return, and buckle again. One way to remember to sanitize is to clip a small sanitizer bottle to your personal item; that way, it's accessible throughout the flight.

Overhead bin latches

It's always the places we think least about that can impact us the most. According to USA Today, the latches on overhead bins are heavily handled but rarely cleaned. That should come as no surprise because those latches aren't in the seating sections, so they probably don't get as much consideration from cleaning crews.

Airlines have no regulatory body when it comes to sanitation. Although the FAA has policies on airplane cleanliness, the airlines themselves are free to set their own standards and quality control measures, which they communicate to contractors.

The cabins of aircraft are generally tidied up between flights but only get vacuumed, wiped down, and disinfected at the end of the day or after overnight or international flights. But for real deep cleaning, most airlines are only able to do that every 30-45 days on average. So consider how many passengers go through each plane in that time, and imagine how many of them touch the overhead bins.

Arm rests

Part of the reason so many germs can make folks sick on airplanes is because of the materials they live on. Auburn University researchers found E.coli 0157 bacteria, which can cause severe diarrhea, can live on a rubber armrest for up to four days, longer than on tray tables or in bathrooms. That's nothing compared to the week that MRSA can live inside the cloth seatback pocket.

The cleaning that happens in between flights doesn't involve wiping down armrests, so this would be a good location to clean with a wipe once you get to your seat. Given the tedious nature of wiping down hundreds of armrests, this area is likely overlooked during that quick turnaround.

You can also use hand sanitizer before eating or drinking and after touching armrests. It can be nearly impossible not to touch them at all for any length of time, but trying to decontaminate yourself after touching them is the best option.

Aisle seats

Many people prefer the aisle so they can stretch their legs and not disturb others standing up, but this location also has its pitfalls. Closer proximity to the aisle also means closer proximity to passengers and airline employees moving through the plane, who often use the back of your chair to steady themselves as they walk, including to and from the lavatories.

Because of how many people walk through the aisles during your flight, not to mention all the other flights, the aisle seat armrest also gets a lot of germy attention. Since folks use the seat or armrest for balance while walking through the aisle, you're picking up all the germs they're leaving behind.

Plus, even if someone doesn't touch the armrest with their hand, brushing against it with their pant leg could also leave traces of that person's germs behind. Perhaps they have a lingering norovirus or pat their half-washed hands dry on their pants rather than using a paper towel.


Hundreds of passengers pass through a plane daily, and the average flight has one toilet for every 50 to 75 people. We know that not everyone washes their hands; men more than women skip this step, so we also know that bathrooms are inherently gross. That goes double for lavatories on airplanes, which are more like a toilet closet than a proper bathroom.

Restrooms are cleaned regularly but aren't fully disinfected between flights, meaning door locks, faucets, sinks, and handles are all natural places for germs from the hundreds of previous occupants to congregate. That is how airplane lavatories ended up being one of the grossest places on an airplane.

But don't get us started on the toilet flush button, which most people touch after using the bathroom but before washing their hands, which has more germs than the toilet itself. According to Travel Math, 265 CFU per square inch are on the lavatory flush button. This is why you should use paper towels when touching the flush button and any other surfaces in the lavatories.

But what about the air?

It's common to come down with a cold or something worse after flying. A popular myth is that the air being recirculated throughout the plane could be the culprit, but the air is actually constantly being cleaned by hospital-grade filters and replaced by clean outside air. On top of that, air in most planes is circulated from top to bottom rather than from front to back, so you're not breathing in the germs of everyone else in the cabin.

In fact, airplane air is generally cleaner than that of most office buildings. That's been true for years, but has been even more true since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Ever since then, airlines have stepped up their air filtration game. Even so, one way to protect yourself from breathing in everyone else's germs is to wear a filtering mask. A cloth mask will even be better than no mask at all. While it isn't the best way to travel, it is the easiest way to protect yourself from the one thing you can't personally sanitize.