Germs on A Plane: Sit in These Airplane Seats to Avoid Sick Passengers

One of the biggest money-saving air-travel strategies out there these days is to leave your seat assignment up to fate — or, you know, a computer.

Most airlines now offer “basic economy” fares, which allow you to book inexpensive flights without paying for any of the perks that used to come standard — perks like overhead bin space, the option to choose your seat or an acceptable amount of legroom. (OK, the use of the term “perks” is fuzzy here.)

For quick-trip takers, light packers and the most flexible and forgiving among us, though, economy fares are a dream.

Until you wind up getting sick a few days after you get home because of a bad seat assignment.

Wait, really?

Yep. It turns out that your seat assignment could be to blame when you get sick after being on an airplane.

How Your Seat Assignment May Determine Your Risk

According to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, where you sit on an airplane, along with what you touch and how well you wash your hands, can have an effect on whether you pick up germs during a flight.

The flu virus can travel short distances through the air — usually about six feet — on respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking. It also can be transmitted through touch, either from person to person or from an object an infected person has touched.

The research team behind the study took five round-trip flights from Atlanta to the West Coast, four of which were during flu season. Each flight had 14 researchers on board, scattered throughout the economy-class cabin to observe the movements and habits of their fellow travelers.

The researchers found that while a person sitting in a window seat had an average of just 12 instances of contact with another person, a person in a middle seat had an average of 58 and a person in an aisle seat had an average of 64. (And remember, as we learned above: Contact = germs.)

Of course, while you can’t control for the other people on your flight and what germs they may be boarding with, sitting in a window seat may reduce your chances of catching an illness from a fellow traveler.

In a window seat, you’ll not only have less direct contact, you’ll also cut your immediate airborne risk significantly. People in aisle seats will have almost double the number of people immediately surrounding them and could even run the risk of contracting airborne germs from someone across the aisle — especially on a smaller plane.

So, the next time you travel, you may want to think about whether it’s worth the added cost to ensure you get a window seat and reduce your exposure to germs.

Keep Germs at Bay When You Fly

But if you’re a real bargain flyer and you just can’t bring yourself to pay the extra fee to choose your own seat, don’t worry: There are things you can do to lower your risk of catching anything from the frequent flyers sniffling around you.

If you do get up to stretch your legs or use the restroom, wash your hands well (and consider bringing hand sanitizer along for extra germ-killing power).

“It’s pretty clear that if you’re seated more than a meter away from an infected passenger and you’re careful with hand hygiene, you’re unlikely to get infected with the flu,” one of the authors of the study, Howard Weiss, told the New York Times.

While you may want to consider skipping your flight if you’re sick, if you are the one sneezing, be sure to sneeze into your elbow, wash your hands often and open your air vent. “That will send the droplets straight to the floor,” Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a professor of nursing at Emory University and lead author of the study told the newspaper.

One final (if not slightly off-topic), helpful takeaway from this study?

On a single-aisle airplane, there are usually two restrooms at the back, but only one in the front. People who used the restroom at the front of the plane ended up waiting an average of 3.1 minutes, while people who queued up for one of the rear restrooms waited an average of only 1.7 minutes.

Always head to the back of the plane.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She used to love the window seat, but she’s more recently become an aisle girl. This study is making her question her decision.