Airplanes have long believed to be a breeding ground of infections of all kinds.  How many times have you heard of someone in a plane with several passengers who were coughing, and in the next day or so, they came down with a horrible cold or flu.  Happened to you?


After the H1N1 outbreak last year, thousands of flights to Mexico were canceled last year as a response. The 2003 SARS outbreak prompted airports and airlines to adopt emergency measures, such as temperature screening as people boarded planes.

There is no doubt that jet travel can spread diseases from one continent to another far faster than in the past.  However a recent report by the National Research Council of the Transportation Research Board makes a case that, in general, an airplane is no more a health threat to occupants than any other enclosed environment, like a theater or subway. Hmmmm.

The report states: “There is always an increased risk of infection whenever you enter a confined space, but an aircraft cabin is no worse an environment than the office you sit in every day.”  Cabin air is refreshed about 15 times an hour, compared with less than 12 an hour in an office building. On most full-size jets, the air is also circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters, which are supposed to remove 99.97 percent of bacteria and the minuscule particles that carry viruses. The cabin air is also divided into separate ventilation systems covering every seven rows or so, limiting the ability of germs to travel from one end of the plane to the other.

Still, that does not rule out the prospect of diseases spreading from passenger to passenger on a long flight. Travelers tend to ignore doctors’ advice to avoid flying if they are sick, exposing unsuspecting seatmates to a threat of infection, the research panel noted.

The report notes that it is the common illnesses, like colds or stomach viruses that travelers should be worried about.  Travelers are more likely to pick up these bugs by touching a lavatory doorknob or a latch on an overhead bin. Perhaps the best piece of advice is to take out an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and wipe down your tray table and other hard surfaces that you are likely to touch during your flight.

In spite of this encouraging news, many frequent fliers say a long flight can leave them feeling as if they have the flu, even if they are perfectly healthy. Medical experts attribute that achy sensation to the effects of the lower oxygen and the aridity of air inside a plane that is at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet and above. Even though most cabins are pressurized at around 8,000 feet above sea level, it is a higher altitude than most people are used to, and the swift ascent and descent of the plane only exaggerate the effects.  In other words, you actually be experiencing a mild case of altitude sickness.