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Airplanes and coronavirus: How to disinfect your space

When a video of Naomi Campbell cleaning her airplane seat and wearing a mask and gloves was shared online last year, it made the rounds because her behavior seemed exaggerated. (“Clean everything you touch,” Campbell said in the video.)

Major airlines, including Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, say they clean their planes to varying degrees between flights, and that plane cleanliness is a priority. But some travelers, including apparently Campbell, prefer the comfort of knowing they’ve also taken measures of their own to sanitize their airplane space.

There’s been increased attention on this in recent weeks, with the unsettling spread of the coronavirus around the world.

“The airplane and airplane seat is a public space, and we know that germs can live on surfaces for a long time, so it doesn’t hurt to clean it,” said Aaron Milstone, associate hospital epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Here are some tips for cleaning your area of a plane and keeping healthy on a flight.

Keep your hands clean and stop touching your face

“Wiping down surfaces on a plane won’t hurt, as long as it doesn’t give you a false sense of security,” Andrew Mehle, associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said, stressing that sanitizing your space on a plane should be done in conjunction with washing hands and following other best practices.

Viral particles, the transmission vehicle of the coronavirus, must travel within mucus or saliva, and they must enter through eyes, nose or mouth. While the coronavirus can last on surfaces like tray tables, touch screens, door handles and faucets — one study found that other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS stay on metal, glass and plastic for up to nine days — a disinfectant on a hard surface, or soap while washing your hands, will kill the virus.

However, most people tend to touch their faces more often than they realize. Doing so after touching a surface where droplets from when someone sneezed or coughed can lead to the virus being passed on.

So first things first: Wash your hands.

“It’s just as important to think about where your hands have been and to wash your hands,” said Mehle.

Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, and if that’s not possible, then use a generous amount of hand sanitizer.

Choose a window seat

A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window. Researchers studied passengers and crew members on 10 three- to five-hour flights and observed that people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people.

“Book a window seat, try not to move during the flight, stay hydrated and keep your hands away from your face,” said Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and one of the lead researchers on the study. “Be vigilant about your hand hygiene.”

Disinfect hard surfaces

When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seat-belt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.

“It’s not bad to wipe down the area around you, but it’s worth remembering that the coronavirus is not going to jump off the seat and get into your mouth,” Milstone said. “People should be more careful of touching something dirty then putting their hands on their faces.”

Disinfecting wipes typically say on the packaging how long a surface needs to stay wet in order for them to work. That time can range from 30 seconds to a few minutes. In order for the wipes to work, you need to follow those time requirements.

Hertzberg added that if there’s a touch-screen television, you should use a tissue when touching the screen. Using a paper towel or tissue ensures that there’s a barrier between a surface that might have droplets and your hands, which will likely make their way to your face.

“Someone who has been sick and coughing might have touched the door and the faucet, so use wipes in the bathroom, then use paper towels to open the door and to close the faucet, then throw those in the trash on the way out,” said Bernard Camins, the medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System.

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