The most germ-ridden part of an airplane is not in the restroom. It’s right in front of you, falling into your lap — the tray table.
An analysis by online trip calculator Travel Math found that the tray table is crawling with far more bacteria than other parts of the plane, including the restroom flush button.
For its analysis, Travel Math sent a microbiologist to collect 26 samples from five airports and four flights on two major airlines. The samples were then tested in a laboratory for the presence of coliform bacteria.
Coliforms are a group of bacteria found in the environment — in soil and water, for example — as well as the digestive tracts and feces of people and animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these bacteria are generally not harmful. However, some types — such as certain strains of E. coli — can cause serious illness.
Travel Math did not specify whether potentially harmful types of bacteria like E. coli were found in the microbiologist’s samples. They were tested for the quantity of coliform bacteria present, which is measured in what’s known as colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch.
The parts of airplanes from which samples were taken were:
- Tray table: The samples from the four flights had a median of 2,155 CFUs per square inch
- Overhead air vent: 285 CFUs
- Lavatory flush button: 265 CFUs
- Seatbelt buckle: 230 CFUs
The parts of airports from which samples were taken are:
- Drinking fountain buttons: The samples from the five airports had a median of 1,240 CFUs per square inch
- Bathroom stall locks: 70 CFUs
To give you an idea of how these numbers compare with the amount of bacteria found elsewhere, Travel Math notes that National Science Foundation tests have found the average home has:
- Pet bowls: 306,000 CFUs per square inch
- Countertops: 361 CFUs
- Toilet seats: 172 CFUs
How to protect your health when flying
Travel Math explains why tray tables tend to harbor more bacteria than airplane restrooms:
“Regular cleaning schedules mean [bathroom] surfaces are sanitized more frequently. This is a good thing; while not discrediting the importance of cleaning all major surfaces between flights, bathrooms have the most potential for fecal coliforms to spread.
Airline staff are under more pressure in recent years to quickly deboard arriving flights and board departing flights to maximize profit for their carriers. … There are many things that the cabin crew must attend to, so tray tables are often only cleaned at the end of the day.”
What’s a traveler to do?
Travel Math advises making sure your food does not come in direct contact with the tray table — or at least don’t eat any food that has fallen onto the tray table. Doing so could transmit bacteria directly into your body via your mouth.
Of course, carrying hand sanitizer is in order — but not just for your hands. Travel Math points out it can be used on dirty surfaces. So, spray down that tray table before you set anything on it.
For more tips, check out “3 Simple Rules to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling.”
Do you take any precautions to ward off germs when flying? Tell us about them below or on our Facebook page.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.