Never Forget to Sanitize Your Tray Table After Boarding a Flight

For most travelers, getting onto a plane comes with a set of rituals to help yourself get settled in for your flight. And whether you’re making sure you have your headphones and book where you can reach them or your movie of choice queued up on the seatback screen, there can be plenty to do before you even take off. But the next time you’re boarding a flight, there’s one thing in particular you should be sure to do right away when you sit down. Read on to see what experts say is a plane essential.

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As soon as you’ve stowed your carry-on luggage and buckled into your seat, you might be tempted to get right into reading or settle in for a nap. But according to flight attendants, you should begin your flight by sanitizing the tray table in front of you as soon as possible.

“My airline hands out little alcohol wipes during boarding for a reason,” Arina Bloom, a flight who worked in the industry for two years, wrote for Business Insider. “Just give the tray a quick wipe when you sit down.”

bare feet against a plane window
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Besides the risks of flying during the COVID era, flight attendants warn that there are plenty of other reasons to be grossed out by your table. “You may think that people only place drinks on seatback trays, but the person before you could’ve slept on it or used it to change a baby’s diaper,” Bloom warns. Linda Fergusona flight attendant with 24 years of experience, told Reader’s Digest “I’ve seen people put their bare feet on top of tray tables.”

Unfortunately, these disturbing workplace anecdotes have also been backed up by research. A 2015 study conducted by travel planning website Travelmath took samples from surfaces on four flights operated by two major carriers and five airports across the US Results showed that seatback tray tables were far and away the dirtiest places sampled with an average of 2,155 colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch.

“Since this could provide bacteria direct transmission to your mouth, a clear takeaway from this is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table,” Travelmath said of the findings.

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On a Delta flight from New York's Laguardia Airport to Atlanta, a passenger who has just boarded wears a plastic glove while using a wipe to disinfect the airplane seats and armrests on her row.  (March 21, 2020)
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Of course, the study found other areas of the plane loaded with bacteria, too. The overhead vents and seatbelt buckles were found to have 285 CFU and 230 CFU per square inch, respectively. Travelmath says the findings also show which areas crews are most likely to focus on cleaning and sanitizing in the sometimes brief time between flights, including spaces you’d expect to be dirty—including bathrooms. Sampling found that lavatory flush buttons had 265 CFU per square inch, or almost eight times less than what was found on seatback tray tables.

Because of this, Ferguson says it can never hurt to bring along your own cleaning supplies—especially since the type of flight you’re taking might provide a clue as to how dirty the cabin could be† “If you’re flying short-haul, definitely bring antibac wipes or sanitizer,” one flight attendant said on Reddit, according to The Sun† “A lot of airlines will have the crew ‘turnaround’ the plane, meaning they pick up your rubbish, fold your seatbelt over, file your magazines in the seat pocket, and then welcome new passengers.”

hand sanitizer on plane
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And it’s not just the seatback that you may have to worry about when you buckle in for a flight. According to Ferguson, while windows provide plenty of views as well as a potential pillow, they also happen to catch the coughs and sneezes of passengers who sit by them. “I see plenty of people carry Lysol wipes with them that will wipe the area around their seat. If there was a backlight and they could light up a plane with all the germs, I think it would petrify everybody,” Ferguson told Reader’s Digest† “My rule of thumb, and I never get sick, is I never put my hands in my mouth or near my face.”

But even if you’re careful to sanitize the area around your seat, other parts of the plane teeming with germs still linger beyond where your wet wipes can reach† So instead of worrying about cleaning every surface, it can be easiest to rely on the fundamentals of personal hygiene. “It’s another reminder to wash our hands,” William SchaffnerMD, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told Today

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