What does flying in a commercial airliner have in common with working at the office or relaxing at home?
According to a new study, the answer is the microbiome — the community of bacteria found in homes, offices and aircraft cabins. Believed to be the first to comprehensively assess the microbiome of aircraft, the study found that the bacterial communities accompanying airline passengers at 30,000 feet have much in common with the bacterial communities surrounding people in their homes and offices.
Using advanced sequencing technology, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University studied the bacteria found on three components of an airliner cabin that are commonly touched by passengers: tray tables, seat belt buckles and the handles of lavatory doors. They swabbed those items before and after 10 transcontinental flights and also sampled air in the rear of the cabin during flight.
What they found was surprisingly unexciting.
“Airline passengers should not be frightened by sensational stories about germs on a plane,” said Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a professor in Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and a co-author of the study. “They should recognize that microbes are everywhere and that an airplane is no better and no worse than an office building, a subway car, home or a classroom. These environments all have microbiomes that look like places occupied by people.”