A microbiologist found the filthiest shocking place on a plane – and it’s not the toilet

The Washington Post
A passenger on a Shenzhen Airlines flight last month allows her child to defecate on the floor of the plane, after complaining that the toilet was too small. Photo: SCMP Picture

Travelling can be kind of a nightmare for germ-a-phobes. Whether you go by plane, train or automobile, you’re sure to meet with dirty rest stop bathrooms, crowded trains and buses, or people coughing next to you on the airplane.

If that kind of stuff bothers you, this article will not make you feel better.

Travelmath.com, a site that helps people calculate the driving and flying time between cities, ranked some of the dirtiest places in airports and airplanes, based on 26 samples gathered by a microbiologist sent to examine five airports and four flights.

Unsurprisingly, they found that airports and airplanes are dirtier than the average home. But the places where they found the most germs in airports and on airplanes might surprise you.

The samples gathered show that bathrooms in airplanes and airports actually have fewer germs than other things we consider far less innocuous. On the airplane, the dirtiest place by far was actually the tray table.

Their tests found that the tray table had 334 “colony forming units” – a measure of the number of bacteria or fungal cells that are able to multiply – per square centimetre. That compares to 44 on the overhead air vent, only 41 on the lavatory flush button, and 36 on the seat belt buckle.


In the airport, the findings were similar: The tests found that drinking fountain buttons had 192 colony forming units per square centimetre, compared to only 11 on bathroom stall locks.

Thankfully, all the samples were negative for fecal coliforms like E. coli, which can make people fatally ill.

Based on 22 households tested by the National Science Foundation, pet bowls, pet toys and home countertops are often dirtier than some things in the airplane and airport, while home toilet seats, cell phones and money are actually cleaner.

It might seem counterintuitive that bathrooms are cleaner than tray tables and countertops. The figures suggest that airlines and airports are actually doing a decent job of sanitizing rest rooms – which is a good thing, since dirty bathrooms can easily spread disease.

The bad news is that airlines and airports don’t appear to be doing a good enough job of cleaning other things. Travelmath points out that the pressure on airlines to board a plane quickly has increased in recent decades, meaning tray tables often don’t get cleaned until the end of the day.

The tests suggest that airlines need to clean planes more often. But until that happens, you might want to avoid eating anything that comes in contact with your tray table.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 9:35am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 5:30pm