Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Want to Avoid Catching a Cold on a Plane? Choose Your Seat Carefully

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Want to Avoid Catching a Cold on a Plane? Choose Your Seat Carefully

Article excerpt

If you want to avoid catching a cold or the flu during your next plane trip, your best bet is to book a window seat. Oh — and don’t get up during the flight.

That seems to be the take-home message from a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study also found that airplane cabins are not quite as efficient at spreading germs as we’ve been told in the past. The conventional thinking of public health officials has been that passengers within two rows of a person with a respiratory infection are at significant risk of getting sick. This new study reports that the infectious zone in a plane is much smaller.

According to the study, your probability of catching a respiratory infection from an infected passenger is only about 3 percent — unless that person is seated within about three feet from you (two seats to your right or left, or in the row directly in front or behind you). Then your chance of getting sick jumps to 80 percent.

Frequent flyers shouldn’t panic, though. That 80 percent is a relative risk. In absolute-risk terms, it means that about one additional person will get ill for every infected person on the plane, the study says.

If your flight attendant is infected, however, then your chance of becoming infected increases no matter where you’re seated, although that risk is higher if you’re in the aisle or middle seat.

On a flight with an infectious crewmember, an average of 4.6 passengers would subsequently become ill, the study found.

Movement matters

For the study, a team of researchers from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology painstakingly observed — and logged — the behavior and movements of 1,540 passengers and 41 crewmembers on 10, single-aisle transcontinental U.S. flights.

The data revealed some interesting patterns. “We now know a lot about how passengers move around on flights,” explains Vicki Hertzberg, a biostatistician at Emory University, in a released statement. “For instance, around 40 percent of passengers never leave their seats, another 40 percent get up once during the flight, and 20 percent get up two or more times.”

“Proximity to the aisle was also associated with movement,” she adds. “About 80 percent of passengers in aisle seats got up during flights, in comparison to 60 percent of passengers in middle seats and 40 percent in window seats. Passengers who leave their seats are up for an average of five minutes.”

The most common reason people left their seat was, not surprisingly, to use the lavatory, followed by checking the overhead bin.

The data also revealed that people sitting in the aisle seats had the greatest number of contacts with other passengers (an average of 64 per flight), followed by those in the middle seats (an average of 58). Contacts were much lower (an average of 12) for people in the window seats. …

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