Would You Change Seats On An Airplane If It Reduced Your Chances Of Getting Sick?

I hear from plenty of folks that worry about catching a cold or the flu while traveling.  There’s another group of folks who just assume that when they do get sick, “I must have caught something while on that flight.”  Still others assume I get sick all the time because I travel a lot.

I rarely get sick.  When I do, I curl up in a ball and I’m miserable for a few days.  My wife gets sick more often, but like a true mom soldiers through and keeps the family running.  I have very little fear of catching something while flying.  Maybe that’s because of years of not catching germs on planes….

Given all the feedback I get from people who assume planes are germ factories, I was really interested in a recent study that analyzed how many germs are found on planes.  Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press took an in-depth look at the study:

The researchers did some mathematical modeling and computer simulations to determine how likely people were to come close to a hypothetical infectious passenger sitting in an aisle seat on the 14th row of a single-aisle airplane. They concluded that on average, only one person on a flight of about 150 passengers would be infected.

That’s less than I would have expected.  It’s kind of comforting when you think of things like SARS, Ebola and the Avian flu.  Now, there’s no guarantee the numbers hold.  But, this survey used crews of folks on actual passenger flights as opposed to trying to model the behavior in a lab.  I wish the study had involved more total flights.  But there’s a ton of good data in the study (leave me a comment below with your e-mail address if you want a copy).  For example:

The proportion leaving their seat at least once varied by seating: 43% of passengers seated by a window (range: 29–62%), 62% of passengers seated in a middle seat (range: 47–72%), and 80% of passengers seated in the aisle (range: 75–85%) moved at least once during the flight. Half of the passengers did not use a lavatory during flight (range: 42–58%), 38% used it once (range: 34–53%), 9% used it twice (range: 4– 13%), and 3% used it more than two times (range: 1–6%).

So, 80% of aisle seat folks leave their seat at least once on a transcontinental flight.  That’s not terribly surprising.  I am surprised that on a 4-5 hour flight only half of the people used the bathroom.   That leaves a lot of folks getting up to grab something out of a bag or just stretch their legs.  I do wonder if the study took into account a person sitting in the aisle seat who only got up to let the middle seat or window seat out to go to the bathroom.

The Final Two Pennies

Mike asked me if the study data would change my opinion on where to sit when I flew:

Pizzarello said he’s an aisle person, because he doesn’t want to feel trapped in the window seat if he needs to get up.

Will he now go for the window?

Maybe, he said, if a sick person sits next to him.

I’ve asked to change seats in the past when a passenger who’s obviously sick sits down next to me.  No, I’m not talking about the baby who spit up and got kicked off of a Spirit Airlines flight.  It’s the person who boards a flight obviously ill.  Lots of coughing and sneezing.  Thankfully, that’s only happened a few times. The flights weren’t full and I politely asked the flight attendants for a new seat.

The bottom line from the study is that a window seat makes you a bit less likely to get infected on your next flight.  If you’re an aisle person like me…..

Would you think about changing?

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