As a few of my colleagues are flying back and forth from New Hampshire, what better time to talk about airplane germs. Last month, the Wall Street Journal confirmed our suspicions that flying really can make you sick. "Air travelers suffer higher rates of disease infection, research has shown," writes the Journal's Scott McCartney. "One study pegged the increased risk for catching a cold as high as 20 percent.... One well-known study in 1979 found that when a plane sat three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, 72 percent of the 54 people on board got sick within two days. The flu strain they had was traced to one passenger." For those who start to itch and fidget when reading such stats, you should probably stop reading this.
As for the rest of you,
[V]iruses and bacteria can live for hours on some surfaces—some viral particles have been found to be active up to a day in certain places. Tray tables can be contaminated, and seat-back pockets, which get stuffed with used tissues, soiled napkins and trash, can be particularly skuzzy. It's also difficult to know what germs are lurking in an airline's pillows and blankets.
Yes, about those pillows and blankets: A friend of mine spent several years as a flight attendant for a large airline. When she left, one of the things she was most happy to never deal with again were those blankets, which she called "scabies rags."
The good news is there are precautions you can take. Open your air vents, wipe down your trays, rub your hands in that alcohol-based sanitizer. The Journal report also urges passengers not to fill water bottles with the water from the bathroom faucet. (Who in his right mind would even consider that?) And, of course, don't use those pillows or blankets.