In general, it is safe to travel in the U.S. but it is a shifting situation. Let’s define a good strategy and be prepared if things get worse.
I fly a lot – logging more than 100,000 miles a year. I am still traveling. In fact, I’m traveling today and will be on the other side of the country for the next few days. Do I think it’s dangerous? It’s not particularly risky if you have your game plan and stick with it.
You have three imperatives:
- Don’t underrate the risks – they will be even worse if you don’t attend to the next two things.
- Wash your hands a lot – far more often than you do now. This is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself and others.
- Don’t touch your face – definitely much less frequently than you do now. (Most people touch their faces three to five times an hour. Many do it 12 or more times an hour.) Touching your face is the way you commonly introduce bugs – pathogens – to your nose and mouth. You touch the doorknob, you scratch your nose, and so it goes.
I am not a germaphobe, but I am careful. Before I head to the airport, I always make sure I have a small bottle of hand sanitizer (minimum 60 percent alcohol), some packets of antibacterial wipes, and a couple of masks in my carry-on bag.
On the plane, I wash my hands whenever I go to the bathroom but I use hand sanitizer when I get back to my seat and likely once an hour as I am touching lots of surfaces. I would put on a mask only if someone is coughing within two rows of me. Studies have shown you are more prone to catching something from a person within that zone, but otherwise I don’t wear a mask.
Quantifying the ick (it may be worse than you even expect)
There are several really germy places – a scientific term – in the airport and plane. The standard metric for germ presence is “colony forming units” (CFUs) per square inch of surface. So, to give you some way of comparison within your home, your kitchen sink has an average of 21,000 CFUs per square inch. The rate for your kitchen countertop is 361 CFUs, your bathroom doorknob is 203 CFUs, and your toilet seat is 172.
A recent study from InsuranceQuotes.com actually measured the germs in all of six common areas in an airport and plane.
- Self-check-in kiosk – The biggest germ count by far is the self-check-in kiosk touchscreen with an average germ presence of 253,857 CFUs per square inch – or about 12 times as many as your dirty kitchen sink. Sanitize your hands immediately after using.
- Gate area seating – The armrests on those seats at the gate scored an average of 21,630 CFUs per square inch, a little worse than your kitchen sink. My solution? I don’t sit. I usually walk around and get in some steps. … Parents with children, older folks, or people with handicaps have fewer options. They just need to keep hands away from their faces and use sanitizers when they get up.
- Public water fountain – You need to stay hydrated on your flight but the button to refill your water bottle has an average CFU count of 19,181 per square inch. Press the button with your elbow and stop at the nearest bathroom to wash your hands.
OK, you made it to your plane and got your seat, what is your strategy? I have a bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket and my mask is in an easy-to-grab location. I touch all surfaces as little as possible, and I wipe down tray tables and the arms of my seat with my antibacterial wipes before getting too comfy.
- Aircraft bathroom – The flush button is really germy with an average CFU per square inch count of 95,145. I use the toilet, wash my hands well and then take another clean paper towel to flush the toilet and open and close the bathroom door.
- Your seat area – Before you get cozy, use an antibacterial wipe on the tray table, the buttons one might likely push (lights, air, entertainment), and armrests. The tray table carries an average of 11,595 germ CFUs per square inch. According to a similar study in 2014, the inside seatback pocket is even germier than an airplane toilet handle, so I don’t put anything there either.
- Seatbelt buckle – Even though many touch it the study found it to be the “cleanest” of the six surfaces tested with a count of 1,116 CFUs per square inch. Again, after you get settled, use some hand sanitizer.
Will I stop traveling? No. But I will be prepared. After all, what do we do for a living, right?
(Full disclosure: I had a cold 10 days ago. Not bad for using these techniques to be cold-free the past three straight years.)
Will I stop traveling? Absolutely not.
However, I will be prepared. After all, it is what do we do for a living.
By the way, in the unlikely event you haven’t gotten your flu shot, it is not too late. Do it.
I’ll see you at DRJ Spring 2020 in Orlando!
Further preparation info