Travel tips and advice: How hygienic are planes?

The idea of aircraft as flying germ incubators has gained currency, but is it really that bad? Why do we stress about travelling on planes when most of us think nothing of commuting on a tram, bus or train? 

Getting sick from an airborne pathogen is about the least of your inflight medical worries. What you're breathing is a mixture of fresh and recirculated air that has been passed through a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter, which takes out all but a tiny fraction of airborne particulates, bacteria and viruses. Cabin air in a modern jet aircraft is completely refreshed every two to three minutes, far more often than in a typical office, classroom or hospital.

Aircraft toilets are where hygiene takes a holiday. On a long flight each toilet will see dozens of individual visits. Toilets are typically small, they might be moving around in turbulence and this limits the ability of passengers to practice thorough hygiene. If the previous user was infected with norovirus, a virulent, highly infectious pathogen, and if they failed to wash their hands thoroughly, just activating the release mechanism on the toilet door might bring you undone. 

Eating on aircraft carries its own set of risks from the bacteria and viruses that you might introduce via your mouth. Many strains of virus that cause colds can survive for many hours in an aircraft environment. Infection is most likely to happen when you're eating or drinking, and this is where you can introduce a circuit breaker. The simple solution is to use a hand sanitiser gel with at least 60 per cent alcohol and apply it before mealtimes. 


A round-the-world business class ticket with stops in North America, Asia and Europe can cost less than $6500 – less than the cost of most return business class tickets to Europe. See