WestJet Airlines
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Where the Most Germs Lurk at Airports and Aboard Airplanes

Travelers by now should be familiar with the potential of contracting an illness due to the proliferation of germs in the airport and aboard an airplane — but although articles such as this one identify the germiest places on the airplane and how to avoid them, what exactly are the levels of the amount of germs found in specific places?

Where the Most Germs Lurk at Airports and Aboard Airplanes

Despite 2017 being designated as a historically safe year for commercial aviation, that debatable statistic applies more to crashes and other incidents resulting from irregular operations and not necessarily from illnesses caused by germs and harmful bacteria. The number of travelers has been steadily increasing every year for the past nine years for a variety of reasons; and yet the space inside of airplanes seems to be getting more cramped due to the size of seats in the economy class cabin; the pitch between those seats; airplane loads consistently near full capacity; and smaller airplanes being used in general, as evidenced by the near extinction of both the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 models of airplanes due to low demand…

…and airports also seem to be more crowded — especially during holiday seasons — and that constant exposure to human beings packed in limited spaces creates more opportunities for germs and bacteria to travel themselves from one host to another more easily.


During the busy holiday season, the team at Insurance Quotes conducted 18 gram and stain culture swab tests across six surfaces — with each surface was swabbed three times — from three major airports in the United States and aboard airplanes for the duration of major flights. The team sent their swabs to the laboratory; and found the average number of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch — or colony-forming units, which are also known as CFUs — to learn more precisely how sanitary is travel. Individual surfaces were chosen based on perceived traffic and accessibility.

It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, members of the team could have gained more insight into colony-forming unit levels. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed in this article are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.

Germs at the Airport When Checking In For Your Flight

Airport Germs
Source: Insurance Quotes.

The international airport which serves the greater Atlanta metropolitan area has been the busiest airport in the world since 1998 — in 2015, passenger number 100 million passed through the airport for the first time; and that number jumped to greater than 104 million passengers who passed through in 2016. Passengers checking themselves in for their flight using convenient kiosks are the quickest stop for many of them — but what is the cost which comes with that speed and convenience?

“The average self check-in screen contained 253,857 colony-forming units — over 13 times more than the average colony-forming unit of an airport water fountain button”, according to this article at Insurance Quotes. “One check-in screen recorded over 1 million colony-forming units. In comparison, an average of only 172 colony-forming units are found on toilet seats.

Despite the kitchen arguably being designated as the most contaminated place in homes and housing more bacteria than a toilet seat, armrests were even dirtier. Food remnants and dirty dishes left an average of 21,000 colony-forming units in kitchen sinks — which are 630 fewer colony-forming units than airline gate bench armrests.

Germs Aboard the Airplane

Airplane Germs
Source: Insurance Quotes.

Supposedly nothing aboard the airplane is nearly as bad as a kiosk or other items in an airport in terms of the number of colony-forming units found on certain surfaces due to the number of people who use them — but the situation is not much better; and are in fact high compared to most surfaces commonly found in homes.

Of no surprise is that buttons to flush the toilet in the lavatory “were the dirtiest, with an average of 95,145 CFU, while a kitchen countertop had an average 361 CFU”, according to the aforementioned article. “It’s often thought airplanes are cleaned between each flight, but the FAA actually doesn’t regulate or inspect aircraft cleaning. Each airline can decide how often and how well an airplane is cleaned, so if the turnaround time between flights is low, the plane may not be cleaned at all. Even when a plane is cleaned, general cleaners are used rather than stronger disinfectants, leaving dangerous germs right in your lap.”

No Need to Go Beyond the Surface

Germ Distribution
Source: Insurance Quotes.

People automatically think of germs and bacteria in the negative sense; but in fact, not all of them are harmful to human beings. In fact, some bacteria are necessary for our bodies to function properly; and not having enough is what can make us sick.

This excerpt from the aforementioned article explains in detail:

These disease-fighting bacteria are usually gram-positive rods — helpful, probiotic bacteria. Don’t let your guard down fully, though — they can also be pathogenic. They were most likely to be found on airport water fountain buttons, making up 59 percent of colony-forming units.

Gram-positive cocci are from the same family of bacteria with a different cell shape but are far more dangerous. Many infections can stem from these bacteria, including pneumonia, skin, ear, and sinus infections, food poisoning, meningitis, bacteremia, and toxic shock syndrome. Gram-positive cocci were found on all surfaces tested in the airport and on the plane — the greatest percentages found on lavatory flush buttons (82 percent) and tray tables (65 percent).

One-third of the bacteria found on tray tables were bacillus – bacteria that cause food to spoil and some diseases in humans. While there is a chance these bacteria can cause anthrax and be involved in various infections, some strains aide in digestion.

A bench armrest at an airport gate was the only place with a large collection of yeast – these fungi made up 40 percent of the colony-forming units tested there. Luckily, yeast is a common fungus found on human skin and areas prone to moisture and are typically harmless. An accumulation of yeast can lead to infections but are unlikely to develop just leaning on an armrest.

The last germ we screened for was also the most dangerous. Gram-negative rods cause infections that are most common in health care settings — pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis. On top of causing serious infections, these bacteria are resistant to multiple drugs and can even resist newer ones. Seat belt buckles were where they were most commonly found, making up 46 percent of total colony-forming units. Armrests on airline gate benches were also popular homes to these pesky germs — 40 percent of the bacteria tested were found to be gram-negative rods.


Germs are everywhere and unavoidable — in fact, exposure to them can strengthen the defenses of your body against dangerous pathogens — but certain surfaces are clearly riskier than others as detailed in this article.

This article is not meant to alarm you; but rather to prompt you to ensure that you are properly employing one of the most effective ways of preventing yourself from contracting an illness: wash your hands.

Ensuring the combination of proper sanitary hygiene while simultaneously avoiding touching sensitive parts of your body — such as your eyes, ears, nose and mouth as four examples — is incredibly effective, easy to do, and takes little effort and time. Eating a healthy diet of satisfying foods and getting the appropriate amount of rest are also factors which can bolster your fight against getting sick from common colds, the flu, and other illnesses…

…and if you believe that your encounters with germs, bacteria and viruses end when you leave the airport at your final destination, think again and read this article to find out the 6 germ hot spots in hotel rooms — as well as this article pertaining to 7 tips on how to stay clean in hotel rooms.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

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