Bacteria on Airplanes Can Last for Days

Many airplane surfaces may be ripe for bacteria to grow and spread from person to person

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) When preparing to take a plane ride, many people pack items like magazines or snacks to help pass the time. There may be another item people should remember to pack — antibacterial wipes.

A recent study found that germs can survive for days on surfaces commonly used in airplanes, such as the plastic tray table or metal toilet button.

"Wash your hands thoroughly to avoid spreading germs."

This research was led by Kiril Vaglenov, a graduate student at Auburn University in Alabama.

The researchers spent two years studying various materials on airplanes to see if two fairly common bacteria could survive easily on airplanes. They looked at E. coli O157:H7 and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Both of these bacteria can make people quite sick if the conditions are right, such as if a person’s immunity is low or they have a cut that provides a route for bacteria to invade.

In their laboratory, the researchers simulated an airplane environment. They were given typical airplane surfaces from a major airliner. These surfaces included an armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth and leather. Keeping the temperature at a low humidity, as if on an airplane, the researchers painted the bacteria on the different surfaces.

The more porous substances, such as the cloth used for seat pockets, harbored the most bacteria for the longest time.

The researchers found that MRSA lasted the longest (168 hours) on the seat-back pocket. E. coli lasted for 96 hours on the material from the armrest.

If another person placed their hand on these areas shortly after someone else who was carrying a bacteria, they could potentially become infected, the researchers realized.

“Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact,” Vaglenov said in a press release.

In a webcast from the annual meeting, the researchers admitted they do not know how well airline personnel clean airplanes in between flights, and what difference that might make in which bacteria is transferred from a surface to a person. These researchers did suggest, however, that there may be antimicrobial compounds that can be manufactured into some fabrics to lower the rates of bacteria residing there.

They also recommended that people taking flights might considering wiping surfaces with antibacterial wipes before sitting down.

Joel Maslow, MD, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, told dailyRx News that we shouldn't be too worried about getting sick from being on an airplane. "The findings of this study, that bacteria can linger on various surfaces and objects touched by others, are true, [but] there is no difference between an airplane seat and other surfaces that we are in contact with each day," Dr. Maslow said.

There have been no reports of outbreaks associated with either MRSA or E. coli O157:H7 related to being on a plane, he added.

As for avoiding becoming sick from others on a plane, Dr. Maslow recommended thoroughly washing hands or using hand sanitizers. He also noted that we should all be courteous of others — if you are the one coughing, cover your mouth to avoid spreading your own germs.

Vaglenov presented the findings of this study at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology May 20 in Boston. Research presented at conference should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The research was partially funded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Aerospace Medicine through the National Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Research in the Intermodal Transport Environment.

Review Date: 
May 22, 2014
Last Updated:
May 23, 2014