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6 Places Germs Breed in a Plane

By Douglas Wright
December 7, 2010
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Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Flu season is in full swing, so it's more important than ever to protect yourself against illness. We dug deep to identify the major germ zones on planes (and tips to avoid them). No, you're not likely to contract meningitis, but better safe than sorry, right?

GERM ZONE: Water
FOR: E. coli, a common culprit behind stomach cramps
Your plane reaches 30,000 feet, the fasten-seat-belt sign switches off, and the flight attendant comes by to take your drink order: Coffee or tea? Ice water? They seem like innocent offers—until you consider that airplane water has been under review by the EPA for traces of E. coli for six years. A random sampling of 327 unnamed domestic and international aircraft caused a stir in 2004 when some water samples tested positive for E. coli, one strain of which is the leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. Coffee and tea are brewed on board with such water and don't typically reach hot enough temperatures to kill E. coli. When bottled water runs out, some planes have been known to fill fliers' glasses from the tank. One British Airways crew member confessed to the London-based Times that, in those cases, the crew first has to wait for any cloudy "floating stuff" to settle out. And onboard tanks are small to limit their weight, so planes sometimes refill at foreign airports, where water standards can be questionable. The encouraging news is that water quality and control are improving: From 2005 to 2008, only 3.6 percent of samples tested positive for coliform bacteria, of which only a small fraction tested positive for E. coli. And in October 2011, the EPA's Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, with more standardized, stringent disinfection and inspection regulations, will go into effect.
TIP: Once you clear the security checkpoint, purchase a bottle of water to bring on board. When the flight attendant comes to take your order, stick to soda, juice, and other prepackaged liquids, minus the ice. While ice cubes are usually supplied by an outside vendor, some large planes may have their own ice-making capabilities—reliant on tank water.

GERM ZONE: Seat Pocket
FOR: Cold and influenza A, B, and C viruses
There's a familiar routine to settling in on a plane: Store your luggage in the overhead bin and deposit any personal items you want to be readily available in your seat pocket. But reaching into that pocket is akin to putting your hand in someone else's purse and rummaging among their used tissues and gum wrappers. Toenail clippings and mushy old French fries are even nastier surprises that have been found in seat pockets. Consider that cold and influenza viruses can survive for hours on fabric and tissues, and even longer (up to 48 hours) on nonporous surfaces like plastic and metal—and you realize that you might pick up more than that glossy flight magazine when you reach inside.
TIP: Bring a small, easily accessible carry-on bag so that you can avoid stashing things in the seat pocket. If you must use it, keep magazines and other items within a plastic bag for protection.

GERM ZONE: Tray Table
FOR: MRSA, a deadly superbug
Flight attendants have witnessed many repulsive misuses of the tray table, from parents changing dirty diapers to kids sticking their boogers underneath. Research confirms that the handy tray table is a petri dish for all kinds of health hazards, including the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), which is often fatal once contracted. It kills an estimated 20,000 Americans annually. In 2007, University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Sexton tested tray tables from three major airliners, and an alarming 60 percent tested positive for the superbug. That's quite a revelation considering only 11 percent of his samples from the New York subway found traces of the bug.
TIP: Bring disinfectant wipes to clean off your tray table before and after use, and never eat directly off the surface. CDC guidelines tell you what to look for in a disinfectant and recommend checking a product's label to see if MRSA is on the list of bacteria it kills; Lysol disinfecting wipes is one reliable choice. And be sure to protect any cuts with Band-Aids—the most common way of contracting an MRSA infection is through open skin.

GERM ZONE: Airplane Meal
FOR: Listeria, a microbe known to cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis
In-flight meals have long had a bad reputation for consisting of bland, barely identifiable dishes. Then, in 2009, the meals made headlines when FDA inspections of the Denver location of LSG Sky Chefs—the world's largest airplane caterer with clients including American Airlines, Delta, and United—found the kitchens crawling with roaches too numerous to count and employees handling the food with bare hands or unwashed gloves. Test samples from the food preparation area also found traces of Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis, as well as cervical infection in pregnant women. Your likelihood of contracting illness from the microbe is very low, though it should be noted that one fifth of the 2,500 annual cases are fatal. LSG Sky Chefs, to its credit, responded accordingly after the news broke and passed the FDA's follow-up inspection in January 2010.
TIP: It sounds like LSG has cleaned up its act, but you'll never really know where your meal has been. If you're concerned, eat beforehand and bring your own snacks onto the plane. Check out our article on how to make a sandwich that will still be appetizing once you're in the air. For starters, choose a well-cured meat like prosciutto or salami.

GERM ZONE: Airplane Pillow and Blankets
FOR: Germs like Aspergillus niger that cause pneumonia and infections
Talk about sleeping with the enemy. You're snuggling with a blanket and pillow that have likely been used by many drowsy, drooling passengers before you. Unless visibly soiled, pillows and blankets are often reissued because of the frequency of flights. A 2007 investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that airlines cleaned their blankets every five to 30 days. And don't assume your blanket is new just because it's wrapped in plastic. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees made a big stink in 2000 when it accused Royal Airline Laundry—which supplies pillows and blankets to clients like American, United, and US Airways—of repackaging pillows and blankets without cleaning them properly. Its research found blankets with traces of Pseudomonas paucimobilis, known for causing lung and eye infections, and pillowcases with Aspergillus niger, which can lead to pneumonia and gastrointestinal bleeding. In the decade since, airlines like Southwest and Alaska Airlines have removed pillows and blankets completely, while JetBlue, US Airways, and American now charge for them.
TIP: There have been no documented reports linking airlines to these infections. But if you're worried about staying warm—and want to avoid potential germs and airline fees—wear layers and thick socks, and consider bringing Grabber Warmers, small disposable hand and foot warmers. A travel pillow and compact blanket will help you sleep in comfort.

GERM ZONE: Airplane Lavatory
FOR: A smorgasbord of threats like E. coli or fecal bacteria
After a mid-flight nap, you wake up to nature's call and must face the airplane's biggest germ zone: the lavatory. With hundreds of people using the commode daily, the small boxy space is a natural haven for all kinds of germs and viruses, especially on the door handle (do you really think every passenger washes his or her hands?). And that thunderous volcanic toilet flush doesn't exactly help the situation, spraying water and releasing potential germs into the air every which way. The CDC cited the lavatory as a major danger area for the spread of disease during the H1N1 flu and SARS epidemics.
TIP: Use a paper towel to close the toilet lid before flushing—and then leave without washing your hands. Remember that cloudy tank water we described above? The sink water comes from the same source. You'll come away cleaner if you skip the sink and reach for hand sanitizer instead.

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A Neat Freak's Guide to a Clean Suitcase

We all know that the door handle to the airplane lavatory is a breeding ground for bacteria, but have you ever considered that similar germs might find their way into your suitcase? Before your inner germaphobe lunges for an airsick bag, a dose of reality is in order. "There's really very little disease you can get from germs on an inanimate object," says Dr. Ronald A. Primas, M.D., of TravelMD.com. "Any time you have a lot of people crammed into a small place, like an airplane, bus, or subway, your risk of acquiring disease is somewhat higher but most of the diseases people get when they travel come from contact with other people directly—not indirectly." Still, as any germaphobe knows, the fact that dirty luggage isn't likely to make you sick provides little solace. Plus, what about the very real possibility of picking up bedbugs or grease stains? Five experts share insider tips on treating the most common suitcase disasters—including when to tackle the mess yourself, when to call in the professionals, and the easiest ways to protect yourself in the future. What's living on my suitcase? Should I be cleaning it after trips? Bacteria and germs are everywhere. Since you never know who's been hoisting your luggage handles behind the scenes (not to mention what's taken up residence on the bottom of that carry-on—E. coli, for example), it's a good idea to have a post-trip plan of attack. "Every time you use your luggage, I would take a damp rag with Lysol and just give the bottom of the bag and the handles a quick once-over," advises Chuck Horst, president of Margaret's Cleaner's San Diego, a dry cleaning service specializing in the care of couture clothing, leather cleaning and handbag and shoe repair. In addition, Horst advises keeping luggage out of your bedroom and—above all—off your bed when you're unpacking after a trip. CLEAN IT 1. Buy some Lysol Disinfecting Wipes. 2. Spot test your suitcase in a discreet area to make sure it won't damage the fabric. 3. Wipe down the bottom of the bag (including wheels) and the handles with Lysol wipes. Squeezing Purell into a rag is similarly effective for removing germs. 4. If you want to completely degerm your suitcase, you can also spend $45 for a professional ozone treatment:a process in which an ozone generator is used to oxidize bacteria. Leather, vinyl, and plastic bags will have to be dry-cleaned by hand (costs will vary depending on the size and scope of the damage). AVOID IT Nesting suitcases that can be stored inside of each other might seem handy, but since the outside of a suitcase is the dirtiest place, it's a bad idea to store them this way, says Horst. If you do, be sure to cover a piece of luggage with a plastic garbage bag before placing it inside another suitcase. A bottle of red wine broke inside my bag! How do I clean this mess? "When red wine spills in your luggage, it is not a good day," says Horst, explaining that it's one of the toughest stains to get out. And while spilled alcohol of the clear variety doesn't necessarily cause discoloration, breakage in your luggage can mean glass shards in the crevices and residual odors that conjure "eau de frat house" everywhere you roll. CLEAN IT 1. Empty your suitcase of its contents and use a vacuum with a crevice tool to suck up all pieces of broken glass from the interior (be sure to check suitcase pockets before vacuuming). 2. Newspapers are hygroscopic (meaning they can readily soak up moisture), says Horst, and can be used to absorb some of the wetness from spilled liquids. Roll up a few pieces of newspaper and place them inside your closed bag for two to three days. 3. Canvas and nylon bags can be scrubbed with reasonable force using a toothbrush and a product such as liquid laundry detergent, according to author Barbara DesChamps, whose book It's in the Bag: Your Custom Business and Travel Wardrobe includes a chapter on fabric cleaning and care. 4. To address major odors, Horst suggests purchasing carbon that's used in aquariums from a pet store and placing it inside a sock in your empty luggage. Spraying Febreze Auto in the suitcase interior is another way to freshen odiferous bags. 5. Wine Away, Horst says, is a product that can help with dissolving red wine stains (evergreenlabs.com, $21 for two 12-ounce bottles). 6. If the exterior of your bag is still stained, you'll need to turn to a professional, like Horst. Leather can be refinished at a cost of $120 to $250, depending on the size, extent of detail, and color of the bag. Canvas and nylon bags can be re-dyed for $60 to $120. AVOID IT Wrap bottles in multiple Ziploc bags before placing them into your luggage to prevent leaks in case of breakage. Commercial airline pilot Omar Amin swears by the VinniBag, a reusable bag with inflatable air chambers that protects bottles from breakage (vinnibag.com, $28,). How do I prevent bed bugs from hitching a ride in my carry-on? With even five-star hotels making the news for bedbugs these days, you should be thinking about how to protect your luggage. "The outside of luggage is typically how bedbugs are getting a ride back to somebody's home," says Jeffrey White, a research entomologist with BedBug Central, an exhaustive online resource that shares information (everything from bedbug identification literature to research and development news) and sells products (from traps that go under furniture to luggage sprays) designed to keep the critters at bay. When it comes to their favorite luggage hangouts, says White, bedbugs like to lurk on zippers, on seams, and alongside the rubber ribbing on a suitcase's exterior. CLEAN IT 1. If you suspect bedbugs at your hotel, begin by notifying hotel management and demanding a different room immediately. 2. Even if you switch rooms, you'll want to bag all your clothes for transport back home. It never hurts to have some dissolvable laundry bags handy when you travel—you can place them directly in the wash, which means that anything living on (as well as in) the bags will be killed. 3. Once home, immediately dump everything washable into the laundry for a hot wash-and-dry cycle. 4. If a visual inspection of the outside of your suitcase shows the critters are there, wipe or spray the bag with 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which will kill them on contact, says White. 5. Before putting the luggage away, use a crevice cleaner to vacuum out the entire suitcase; then wrap it in plastic bags for storage. 6. If all else fails, using a product like Nuvan Prostrips is a brawny step to take in the battle against bedbugs. Simply place your empty suitcase in a garbage bag with one of the strips—the strip releases an odorless gas that kills the unwanted bloodsuckers ($50 for a 12-pack). AVOID IT While chances remain slim that your hotel room will have bedbugs, you can take preventative action by using a spray like Pronto Plus (prontoplus.com, $6.75 for a 10-ounce can) before you travel, coating the inside and outside of your luggage to keep bedbugs away, says Michael Colongione, president of GotchA! Bed Bug Inspectors. Yuck, my bag is covered in black grease. What now? Airport baggage systems are made up of all sorts of moving parts lubed with grease to keep them running smoothly. So it's no surprise that many a frequent flier has seen his or her suitcase emerge looking like it's done a lap around a racetrack rather than the baggage carousel. If you have a hardcase or a nylon bag, there's a chance you'll be able to get the stains out yourself; leather and canvas bags require professional treatment. CLEAN IT Hardcase bags 1. On hardcase bags, says Horst, "start with a product like Simple Green and a rag to try to get the grease out," and then move up to products like Formula 409 Glass and Surface Cleaner and Windex Original, which contain ammonia and are more aggressive cleaners (but carry a risk of color and luster damage). 2. Do a color test first on a discreet part of the bag to make sure the product won't damage the suitcase. 3. Then apply Simple Green to a damp, soft rag and wipe it over your suitcase, followed by a swipe with a clean rag to rinse and one with a dry rag to finish. (The ammonia cleaners can be sprayed directly onto the bag and wiped with a sponge or soft rag.) 4. Finally, if your hardcase bag lost its luster in the cleaning process, use Armor All Original Protectant or automotive wax to shine it up again. Nylon bags 1. For nylon or other soft bags affected by grease, DesChamps recommends using dry cornstarch. "Rub the cornstarch into the fabric, let it sit for as long as it takes to absorb the grease, and then brush it off, repeating as necessary," she says. She recommends getting as "much of the grease off as possible this way before you try to clean the suitcase with detergent." 2. After you've done all you can with cornstarch, it's time to break out the soap. Horst recommends mixing Ivory Snow with water—a good option because it won't bleach out the color or degrade the fabric of your suitcase. Fill a pan halfway with warm water and add just enough powder or liquid to make suds with gentle splashing, he says. 3. Next step: Apply the suds to the bag (again, using a soft rag or sponge). Heavy soiling may require a minute or two of scrubbing and repeated applications. Leather bags 1. For leather bags, you definitely want to employ the help of a dry cleaner who specializes in accessories, says Horst, since using wet products to try to lift grease will only cause it to become further engrained in leather and "much harder, if not impossible to get out." The cost starts at $40 and goes up depending on the bag. AVOID IT Using Scotchgard Fabric & Upholstery Protector on your luggage as a preventative measure goes a long way in making it easier to remove grease stains after the fact, says Horst. Keep a distance of about 18 inches from the suitcase when you apply the aerosol spray, he says, and be sure not to apply in heavy coats, as Scotchgard can darken colored fabrics. Help! My shampoo exploded like a bomb inside my luggage! Who hasn't arrived at their destination and found a soupy, soapy mess where once there were shampoo and conditioner bottles? Exploding toiletries are a fact of life for most frequent fliers. And while the mess is inherently clean, cleaning it up often leads to a foamy disaster. CLEAN IT 1. The first thing to know when cleaning up spilled soaps and shampoos is that,in most cases, no additional cleanser is necessary. 2. Horst recommends using a spray bottle with water to slowly lubricate the saturated area. Then alternate between spraying and vacuuming with a wet/dry vac to suck the moisture out. 3. Unless your luggage is a hardcase, avoid getting it really wet as part of your cleaning process, says Horst, as that will only drive the spilled soaps deeper into fabrics. (Hardcases with soiled interior linings can require professional cleaning, which can range from $95 to $165.) 4. If the cardboard bottom of your bag has been saturated with shampoos or other exploding liquids, there's a chance that it's permanently damaged and will need to be replaced—an easy, but not inexpensive, fix at most luggage repair centers, where experts will insert a new base into your bag for $120 or more. 5. Leather bags saturated with shampoos and soaps should be brought in for professional cleaning, which costs between $120 and $250 (you'll pay up to $250 more if the lining needs to be replaced). AVOID IT Those TSA rules that mandate Ziploc bags for liquids in carry-ons make a lot more sense when applied to transporting toiletries in your checked bags. Putting individual toiletries or your entire toiletry bag in a Ziploc bag or two when you travel is a simple measure that can save you a lot of hassle.

Just Back From... Morocco's Bazaars

Great local meal... A lamb tagine paired with the traditional harira soup and washed down with some sweet Arab tea at Chez Chegrouni in Marrakech. [PHOTO] Generally, my favorite way to sample Moroccan food is on the street—the variety is outrageous. [PHOTO] We're still laughing about... Our hammam (bath) experience. We visited a traditional hammam with no idea what to expect. Soon enough, our "therapists" came and drenched the both of us with boiling-hot water and started scrubbing us hard—really hard. We couldn't stop sniggering despite our torturous predicament. Our favorite part... Morocco's colorful and chaotic souks (bazaars). The labyrinths of narrow alleyways are packed with beautiful spice stalls and handicraft shops. We spent hours soaking up the energy, getting lost, and absolutely enjoying it. We were also enchanted by mosques like Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech and Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. [PHOTO] What we should have packed... Layers! In northern Morocco, around Tangier, weather is somewhat Mediterranean. But in the south, temperatures would get very hot in the day and very cold at night. Worth every penny... A pair of Moroccan lamps [PHOTO]. I was obsessed with the gorgeous bronze lamps—some framed with stained glass—that hang from the ceiling of every shop in the bazaar. You can usually buy them and then send them home via overseas postage, but we carried two large lamps back to Granada, Spain, on the ferry. When we got home and hung them in our living room, I knew they were worth our effort. Never again... Will I ask for the price of something if I'm not truly interested in buying it. I became curious about the price of a table while roaming around a bazaar in Fez. [PHOTO]. After I rejected the shopkeeper's first offer, he kept insisting on lowering the price. He even followed me for a few minutes, each time naming a lower price. Once he knew that I was seriously not going to buy it, he scolded me for wasting his time. Fun surprise... Stumbling upon a vibrant fishing market in the beach town of Larache. [PHOTO] We decided to take a day trip out of Asilah to explore and assumed Larache would be similar: calm, quiet, and filled with the ubiquitous white-and-blue architecture. But to our surprise, it was market day, and everyone in town had gathered around the fish vendors. It was the best peek into local life. Moment when things got tense... We were overwhelmed by the amount of activity by Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech's historic center. [PHOTO] Without Alberto noticing, a local man placed his monkey on his shoulders and asked me to take a photo of them. I took a shot, laughed, and didn't think more of it, but the man asked for payment. When we refused, he got a little worked up and we had to walk fast to ditch him. Hotel we liked... Riyad Al Moussika, a charming Marrakech guesthouse that retains a tinge of authenticity. The decor is amazing, rich with local flavors and heritage.

7 Surprising Items That Set Off Airport Security

Ever wonder why the TSA singled you out to rifle through your bag? Or what exactly made the metal detector beep? By now, we all know to ditch our liquids before reaching security. But did you know that something as harmless as a headband can prompt a time-consuming cross-examination? On an average day, transportation security officers scan more than 2 million travelers—and all of their luggage—and that number will only continue to increase. We spoke to TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches for the lowdown on seven items that can put officers on alert in spite of the fact that, for the most part, they're perfectly acceptable for air travel. THE OFFENDER: ALUMINUM FOIL WRAPPERS Why they catch attention: Nothing escapes the metal-detecting prowess of airport security systems—not even something as miniscule as a foil wrapper. Many manufacturers of chewing gum, candy, and cigarettes have caught on and made the transition from metallic wrap to paper, but the hold-outs can put a kink in your smooth passage through airport checkpoints. What to do: Empty your pockets of any and all offending foil before passing through a metal detector. THE OFFENDER: HEADBANDS Why they catch attention: Even though headbands (like bulky clothing and hats) are not prohibited, sporting them may lead to additional screening. The reason is simple: Metal constitutes the frame of many headbands and, consequently, triggers the detector. What to do: Avoid being pulled aside by sending your hair accessory through security ahead of you on the X-ray belt. THE OFFENDER: SMALL ALCOHOL BOTTLES Why they catch attention: The TSA is naturally more focused on detecting potential explosives than in analyzing the contents of your personal minibar, but when it comes to liquors, the rules are based on size and packaging: Respectively, alcohol must be less than 3.4 ounces, bottled in original container, and contained in a one-quart sized, zip-top bag. What to do: As long as you follow the 3-1-1 requirements for liquids, you should be ok. THE OFFENDER: SNOW GLOBES Why they catch attention: Don't expect to get onto a plane with a snow globe. Believe it or not, the liquid contents of most crystal balls surpass the 3.4-ounce limit and, consequently, aren't allowed in carry-ons. In fact, back in October an abandoned package containing a snow globe appeared so suspicious that it caused the evacuation of Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. What to do: There's no way around it—snow globes need to be checked. THE OFFENDER: INHALERS Why they catch attention: As an aerosol product, some inhalers are a cause for concern because at first glance they may seem to violate the "3-1-1" rule for liquids, gels, and aerosols (limit of 3.4 ounces, packed in one quart-size, see-through, zip-top bag). Of course, given that these objects are a medical must for some travelers, they are exempt from restriction. What to do: To avoid unwanted questioning, Gaches advises travelers to inform officers in advance if they're carrying an inhaler. It helps speed things up if your medications are properly labeled. THE OFFENDER: UNDERWIRE BRAS Why they catch attention: The TSA swears this shouldn't be an issue, but we've heard plenty of tales from women (and at least one cross-dresser) who insist that the metal in an underwire bra has triggered a secondary "wanding" after passing through the metal detector. In some cases, a rogue underwire has even led to a closer inspection by a female agent in a private room. What to do: The answer, then, may be to pack the metallic lingerie in your checked bags and sport a more comfortable model while in flight. THE OFFENDER: JARS OF PEANUT BUTTER Why they catch attention: Everything on earth can be categorized as a liquid, gas, or solid—except maybe lava and peanut butter. It's doubtful you'll be packing lava in your purse, but what about peanut butter? It's certainly not a liquid—you could hold it upside down for a decade and it would never drop. But anything that can "conform to the shape of its container," such as cold cream, toothpaste, or, yes, peanut butter, can upset the swift flow of the security line. What to do: Plan ahead and pack "conformable" liquids in the bags you'll be checking. Peanut butter sandwiches, on the other hand, are perfectly fine. Unsure about an item that's not on our list? Check out the TSA's online "Can I Bring?" application to see what is (and is not) acceptable. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Don't miss these editor-selected travel deals America's 10 best winter beach retreats 8 outrageous tales of bizarre behavior at security

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