Revealed: The dirtiest places in planes and airports - and how often they get cleaned

Australian airlines have revealed how often they clean their surfaces after a recent study revealed where the dirtiest areas on planes and airports are located.

US-based insurance website Insurance Quotes collected 18 samples from three US major airports and flights to find out the average number of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch – known as colony-forming units (CFU).

The samples were taken from six surfaces and each surface was swabbed three times at the airports or major airlines.

According to the website, the dirtiest surface was the self check-in screen.

A recent study found the dirtiest surface was the self check-in screen. Source: AAP, file

The screen had 253,857 CFU, which was more than 13 times the average amount found on an airport water fountain.

One of the screens tested had more than one million CFU.

On the other hand, the average amount of CFU found on a household toilet seat is 172.

The study also found airline gate bench armrests contained an average of 21,630CFU and water fountain buttons had 19,181 CFU.

Meanwhile on-board planes, the lavatory flush button came up with an average of 95,145 CFU, tray table returned 11,595 CFU and the seat belt buckle had 1,116 CFU.

Bacteria and fungi found on these surfaces were gram-positive rods (which are usually probiotic bacteria), gram-positive cocci (a common organism that can create an infection consisting of pus) and gram-negative rods (associated with hospital-acquired infections).

Bacillus (bacteria that could spoil food and lead to some diseases) and yeast (normally present on human skin and areas of moisture) were also detected.

Drinking fountain in the departure lounge of the airport. Source: Getty Images, file

Airlines respond

Both Tigerair and Virgin Australia said they conducted “regular” cleaning of their planes.

“Tigerair Australia upholds exemplary hygiene standards,” a spokesperson for the airline told Yahoo7 News.

“This [regular scheduled cleaning] involves ‘deep cleans’ by our engineers as well as cabin crew cleaning on an as-needs basis throughout the day.

“Lavatory surfaces are cleaned with alcohol wipes at the end of every flight, while our aircraft are also cleaned each night.”

Virgin Australia said it also upheld “excellent hygiene standards” and “regular scheduled cleaning” of its airport infrastructure.

Its airplanes also underwent regular ‘deep cleans’ and were cleaned each night, and when necessary by cabin crew.

“The lavatories are also cleaned by cabin crew each flight,” a spokesperson for Virgin Australia said.

“In airport terminals, Virgin Australia team members conduct daily cleans of self-service check-in counters with alcohol wipes.”

Yahoo7 also contacted Qantas, Jetstar, Sydney Airport and Melbourne Airport for comment on the matter.

The study also found airline gate bench armrests contained an average of 21,630CFU and water fountain buttons had 19,181 CFU. Source: AAP

Should you be worried?

Professor Marc Pellegrini, from The University of Melbourne’s Department of Medical Biology, said planes and airports were places where it was easy pick up germs.

But “for the most part the bacteria and fungi mentioned in the study are unlikely to cause illness and disease in healthy people if they wash their hands”, he says.

“And I’d make sure kids don’t go licking any surfaces,” Prof Pellegrini told Yahoo7 News.

Prof Pellegrini said the study did inform people that airports were dirty places and if there were lots of bacteria then there would also be lots of viruses, such as the common cold.

But the study did not attempt to detect viruses.

“Primarily because testing for viruses requires very specialised equipment and it is very tricky. But where there are lots of bacteria there are bound to be heaps of viruses,” Prof Pellegrini said.

“We pick these viruses up when we touch the same surfaces mentioned in the study and them rub our nose or rub our eyes.

“Picking up a cold virus during travel is not uncommon but these viruses do not cause severe illness.

“The viruses that do kill people and can be picked up in planes and during travel are flu, MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] and SARS.

“These viruses are primarily spread by coughing. And putting people in a confined space, like a plane, and drying out our throats with air-conditioning helps to create the perfect circumstances for transmitting these viruses.

“Additionally, airports bring many people from different places together and this creates a perfect mixing pot such that one infected person can spread their virus across the world via human couriers.”