Why you don't want to sit in an aisle seat on a flight

Cabin of a plane

Where's the safest place to sit on a plane? Not in an aisle seat if you'd rather not pick up other passengers' germs and viruses, according to one expert.

Microbiologist Chuck Gerba has revealed that sitting in the aisle exposes you to bacteria and germs from other passengers.

Gerba, who heads up a research lab in the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says that sitting in an aisle seat puts you physically closer to passengers going to and from the bathroom.

He adds that people touch and hold aisle seats "when walking to help keep their balance, increasing the risk of contamination".

Speaking to io9, Gerba referred to an incident in 2008 when a tour group on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles came down with norovirus, with infected passengers were experiencing diarrhoea and vomiting throughout the plane.

When the other passengers on the flight were later contacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out if they came down with the vomiting bug, the CDC found that those most likely to have contracted the illness were passengers sitting in aisle seats as they were closer to the infected passengers who had been moving throughout the plane to get to the toilets.

Viruses can spread easily through the air on planes too. Earlier this month, experts created a video to show how a person sneezing in the middle of a plane can spread their germs throughout the entire cabin.

Software company ANSYS created the simulation which shows that people sitting next to and behind the person sneezing are most at risk of infection.

As a passenger sneezes, the particles travel into the air and remain in a cloud above their head.

Flying myths: True or false?
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Why you don't want to sit in an aisle seat on a flight
True! It is actually very common for airlines to overbook flights as it is a rule, rather than an exception, that a certain number of passengers will not turn up. Depending on the nation, airlines try to stop having empty seats on flights by overbooking a certain number of seats.

True! The low pressure in the airplane cabin does affect the taste of food and drink, and much more tomato juice is drunk above the clouds than on the ground!

False! Pilots only dump fuel before landing in the case of an emergency, and have to ask permission from Air Traffic Control before doing so.

True! Due to practical and safety-related reasons, aircraft crew do have to meet certain height and weight criteria. A number of airlines also have guidelines on vision too.

True! In order to calm superstitious passengers, a number of airlines don’t have a row 13 or a row 17 in the seating layout.

False! Aeroplanes are regularly struck by lightning, but this does not mean they are forced to land. All aeroplanes undergo stringent tests before being allowed to fly and even in the case of an engine failure, an airplane will not necessarily be forced to land immediately.

False! When cruising at altitude airplanes actually increase oxygen content, as the oxygen content in the air outside the cabin is now high enough.

False! This is one of the oldest rumours, but it is indeed a myth. Toilet contents are stored in a tank and only emptied at the end of the flight, once the plane has landed.

True! For safety reasons, passengers who are severely overweight will have to purchase two seats with certain airlines, but it is rare that these passengers will also have to pay the taxes and fees for both seats.

False! Only in incredibly rare circumstance will a pilot fly a plane alone, as they are always supported by a co-pilot, who plays an active role in the flying of  the plane.

False! The idea of a plane crash is enough to perturb even the most seasoned traveller, but contrary to popular belief, when the US Government’s National Transportation Safety Board studied accidents over 20 years they recorded a survival rate of over 95 per cent. What’s more, the chances of dying on your next flight are calculated to be one in 60 million, making air travel hundreds of times safer than travelling by car. In fact, on this basis you could fly every day for the next 160,000 years without a problem.

False! 'It’s surprising how many people still believe in the legend of the Bermuda Triangle, but the truth is, planes fly over this area every single day, as it's a major flight route from Florida to Bermuda and the Bahamas,' says Aaron Ritoper from Fly.com Boats sail, planes fly and people swim in the Triangle. The legend started decades ago when a researcher outlined an area he was studying where vessels and aircraft had gone missing. It was given the moniker 'The Bermuda Triangle' and the legend became an overnight sensation. But many disappearances have now been explained in purely logical terms.

False! OK, so maybe YOU personally can’t take a gun on a plane, but American pilots are permitted to carry guns on flights in and out of Britain. Since September 11th 2001, the US Federal Aviation Administration permits all US pilots be armed in the cockpit in case of an unexpected emergency or terrorist attack. For flights of all nationalities, the cockpit is always locked, and passengers are not permitted to take tours or get branded wings from the pilot as they were able to before 9/11.

False! Or more false than true, anyway. According to an old saying, one in the air is like three on the ground. But that adage isn’t strictly accurate; it’s your blood alcohol level that determines levels of intoxication and this is not affected in any way by altitude. However, with less oxygen reaching the brain because of the high altitude and the pressurised cabin, it might cause some passengers to feel more inebriated. Either way, we wouldn’t advise drinking excessively onboard, if only out of courtesy to your neighbours...

False! The difference in cost between weekend and weekday flights can be quite significant. Looking at historical data the flight experts at Fly.com suggest that booking flights on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday will usually net you a far better fare.

False! It is widely believed that mobile phones could adversely affect the navigational instruments in an aeroplane’s cockpit, but there is currently no credible evidence that links electronic devices with interference. 'Aeroplanes are specially insulated against foreign radio signals, and their communication and navigation instruments operate on different frequencies from mobile phones, meaning that phone signals are unlikely to interfere with the plane’s sat nav. 'The ban is actually in place to prevent communication problems on the ground,' says Aaron Ritoper from Fly.com. 'If someone made a phone call from a plane, the signal would bounce across multiple signal towers at once, which could prevent other calls from going through.' It’s still a hotly debated topic with many suggesting airlines only  support the ban in order to increase the use of expensive in-flight ‘air phones’.  Since January 2014, the European Aviation Safety Agency has allowed limited use of electronic devices on board, causing a number of airlines to loosen regulations. From March 2014, airline Lufthansa has actually allowed limited use of electronic devices during the flight.

True! Despite what many people think, airport security X-ray machines cannot harm your gadgets – computers, cameras, MP3 players and phones are all perfectly safe because the x-ray procedure does not use magnetic charges. However, budding photographers would be wise not to carry old fashioned film with them on planes, as the machines can damage undeveloped photos.

False! Despite making up over a quarter of the population, low income households took just six per cent of the flights recorded from London airports last year, while the top earning quarter of the population took almost half of all flights, according to Fly.com statistics. So it’s actually the wealthiest people who are benefiting from the growth in air travel: people with second homes abroad take an average of six return flights with the airlines every year.  While air travel has been getting progressively cheaper over the past decade, there’s still a long way to go before it is accessible to all.

False! Air recirculates in an aeroplane cabin approximately every three to five minutes. For that reason, some concerned travellers believe that this constantly recycles germs through the air supply and fosters sickness. However, aeroplanes use sophisticated HEPA filters designed to extract 99.5 per cent of germs and viruses from the air, while studies have even shown that the air filters can remove SARS and bird flu germs, potentially making it cleaner than the stuff you breathe on the ground.

True! There have been a number of stories in the media about passengers’ attempts to open the emergency door at altitude, but this is in fact impossible. Why? 'Because the door is designed to open inwards before opening outwards, and the pressure differential between the cabin and the outside air at altitude prevents this required inward motion - the door is in fact sealed tighter the higher the plane goes. So rest assured: no matter how hard you try, that door is not going to open until you’re firmly on the ground,' explains Aaron Ritoper, UK manager for Fly.com

False! Planes are frequently hit by lightning. According to livescience.com, the average commercial jet gets hit at least once a year by lightning. Sometimes, the plane can trigger lightning by flying through electrically charged clouds, causing static. Fortunately, planes are built to withstand lightning, although it has been known on rare occasions to bring planes down.
False! The risk of being killed in a plane crash in any single year is one in 25 million passenger journeys. This is three times safer than travelling by train and 12 times safer than travelling by car. Statistically, you are more likely to have a fatal accident during six hours at work than you are during six hours sitting on a train, according to Brian Clegg's book Inflight Science.

True! Recent research from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics has shown that altitude can dull human taste buds by up to 30 per cent, meaning that it might not be your in-flight meal that’s rubbish, but your own taste receptors. The length of a flight can also have an impact on your taste buds, as the longer a flight, the more dehydrated you become and therefore the more dulled your palate. If you can, choose something with tomato, lemongrass or curry, and the flavours should hold up! 


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