How to protect yourself against germs at airports, on planes

CHICAGO -- A closer look at germs at an airport and on airplanes might make you think twice about contamination when you travel.

One insurance company conducted 18 Gram stain culture swab tests across six surfaces. Three of them were from airplanes and three from airports. They did the tests this past winter at three major airports in the United States and the results might make some people sick. But then again, so could the germs they found.

While you’re at the airport, the folks at insurancequotes.com say watch what you touch, where you sit and where you drink.

The company enlisted the help of a lab and tested high traffic, highly accessible places for travelers.

Here’s what they found:

“The dirtiest surface we found was far and away the check-in terminal screens,” Joseph Morrison with Insurance Quotes, said.

At the self-check kiosk, the place where you begin your trip, the lab showed 250,000 colony forming units or CFUs—that’s the unit of measure for live active bacteria. The touch screens had the largest collection of germs that would most likely make you sick.

Compare the airport check-in screen, to your home’s kitchen sink, which is often considered a breeding ground for germs.

The touch screen is 250,000 CFUs. The sink is about 21,000 CFUs. And at the one at the airport, Insurance Quotes found upwards of a million per one individual surface.

Arm rests at the gate came in second with 21,000 CFUs considerably less than the touch screen to check-in for your flight. The folks at Insurance Quotes suggest you wipe them down with an anti-bacterial cloth—a must when you fly the germy skies.

If you’re thirsty, consider that 19,000 CFUs await you at the drinking fountain, specifically on the button you press. It turned out to have the least number of germs of the three places tested at the airport.

Once you board the plane, lab results show you should keep your wipes handy for your seatbelt buckle, your tray table and the bathroom.

A seatbelt showed an average of 1,116 CFUs. By comparison that’s about three times worse than your home’s kitchen counter. But that’s nothing compared to the tray table passengers eat on set their electronics on—or in some cases sleep on, even change their baby on.

Tray tables averaged over 11,595 CFUs.

Bathrooms registered the highest levels of live bacteria on board a plane. Roughly 95,145 CFUs found on the lavatory “flush” button. It’s also the place where you’ll find the highest amount of bacteria that causes infections like pneumonia, skin, ear and sinus infections-even meningitis.

“It’s what you would expect to be a dirty area in the first place, but in comparison to the check-in screens, actually much lower,” Morrison said.

Some other travel tips to keep in mind:

  • Your cleanest airplanes are the ones taking off first thing in the morning. Aircraft are cleaned most thoroughly when they are on the ground overnight.
  •  Consider an upgrade for a cleaner seat. Two major carriers told the Wall Street Journal that all first and business class seat tray tables get a sanitary wipe-down between flights. The rest do not.
  • Hold a tissue when pushing buttons or sliding locks in the bathroom.
  • Wipe down your tray table right when you get to your seat, and avoid the airport check in kiosk if you have a choice.
  • Be conscious and sanitize when you feel necessary. If it looks dirty, it probably is dirty.