Traveling this summer may have you thinking in a different way
Most air travelers have worried about catching a cold or the flu from fellow passengers. According to a new study, the odds of that happening may be lower than you think — but have something to do with where you sit on the plane.
Research published on March 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that passengers seated within one row and within two seats laterally of someone with a common infectious respiratory disease had an 80 percent or greater chance of becoming infected. For everyone else on the plane, however, the risk of infection was less than 3 percent.
“We were interested in how infectious disease might spread from one person to another via large-droplet transmission,” says the study’s first author, Vicki Stover Hertzberg, PhD, of Emory University in Atlanta. “You’re coughing or you’re sneezing or maybe you’re talking, and those large droplets get emitted. What we found was there was this limited perimeter where people had the greatest risk. For passengers seated outside of that perimeter, there was a very low probability.”
The study also found that where a passenger sits correlates to in-flight behaviors that can raise the risk for infection. Passengers seated on an aisle were far more likely to travel about the plane’s cabin, increasing their potential exposure to germs throughout the cabin. Eighty percent of travelers in an aisle seat moved at least once during flights, whereas 62 percent of passengers in middle seats and only 43 percent of passengers seated by a window got up.
The most common reasons that passengers left their seats were to use a lavatory and to check the overhead bin.
Passenger and Flight Attendant Risk
While the risk of being infected by a fellow passenger was relatively low, the chances of catching something from a crew member was much greater. The study found that one sick passenger, on average, infected 0.7 additional travelers. But one sick flight attendant can infect an average of 4.6 passengers. On an approximately four-hour flight, each crew member was in contact with passengers for 67 minutes and averaged 155 minutes in the galley.
“We found that people in the aisle and middle seats were at an increased risk, but the infectious crew was more likely to infect other crew members,” Dr. Hertzberg says. “Flight attendants spend a lot of time together in galleys.”
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