The worst spots for germs when flying

A new study suggests airports and airplanes are dirtier than your home.

Travel website Travelmath sent a microbiologist to collect 26 samples from five airports and four flights to find out where the most germs are found. The lab samples were sent to a lab to estimate the total bacteria population, or colony-forming units (CFU), per square inch.

The website said, surprisingly, the dirtiest surface on an airplane is the surface that your food rests on, the tray table. It registered much higher for germs than all of the other locations and surfaces tested. The tray tables averaged measurements of 2,155 CFU per square inch or nearly 10 times the amount of the second-most contaminated surface.

The next three most contaminated surfaces are the overhead air vent (285 CFU), the lavatory flush button (265 CFU) and the seat belt buckle (230 CFU).

To compare that to the average home, a National Science Foundation study found home toilet seats measure 172 CFU per square inch.

Travelmath said the clear takeaway from the results is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table. It’s also a good idea to bring hand sanitizer for any other dirty surface you may touch along your journey.

The “germiest” places in airports, according to the study, are drinking fountain buttons, at 1,240 CFU per square inch. That’s compared to bathroom stall locks, which measured 70 CFU per square inch.

The study found bathrooms on airplanes were some of the cleaner surfaces tested because regular schedules mean they are cleaned and sanitized more frequently. This was the good news from the report. Travelmath said cleaning all major surfaces between flights is important, but bathrooms have the most potential for fecal coliforms to spread.

The travel website said airline staff have been under more pressure in recent years to quickly deplane arriving flights and board departing flights to maximize profits for their carriers. Since there are many tasks flight crews must do between flights, tray tables are often only cleaned at the end of the day.

Most carriers set their own cleaning standards, since federal regulations through agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration do not address the cleanliness of airports or airplanes. The Environmental Protection Agency does occasionally monitor water quality, according to the study.