I’m not generally a paranoid person (no, really, I mean it) — but when it comes to piling dozens of people into a sealed environment for hours on end I’ll admit to a little extra situational awareness.
For me, it starts in the airport at the gate. Nothing obvious, just a few glances around to see who looks like they’re coming down with something (or worse, are already in the throes of a coughing/sneezing/wheezing fit). Then the wishing, hoping and praying starts — please don’t let them be in the seat next to me, or the next row, or in the same section. Wait, maybe they’re sitting at the wrong gate?
The study took place during the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009, which prompted some people to avoid flying out of fear of catching the virus from fellow travelers. Heightened levels of disease reporting during the pandemic helped researchers track instances of influenza-like-illnesses (ILIs) to see how they may have been transmitted on flights.
Researchers took a look at two long-haul flights to Australia in May 2009 where several passengers were known to be infected with H1N1. Three months after the flights, passengers were asked to complete surveys to report any subsequent flu-like symptoms.
The results showed two percent of passengers had a flu-like illness during the flight and five percent developed a flu-like illness the week after they arrived in Australia.
Given my (somewhat irrational) fear of being within about a dozen rows of someone who looks like they have a fever — it’s not that bad.
Study author Dr. Paul M. Kelly, an associate professor at Australian National University in Canberra, says the “danger zone” for flu transmission is actually about two seats in each direction — two rows in front and behind you as well as two seats on either side.
“Change seats if you find yourself within two seats of someone who is sneezing, coughing and looks like they have a fever,” Dr. Kelly says.
Can’t get another seat? “If you have a mask, wear it or suggest your neighbor wears it. Wash your hands and avoid touching your own face to minimize the chances of spread via that route.”
Experts say washing your hands — well and often — is a great way to stay healthy whether you’re in the air with a couple hundred of your closest “friends” or running around at ground level; and that’s whether anyone around you looks sick or not.
Another tip for frequent flyers (and the rest of us): get your flu shot. With that protection, you’re far less likely to get sick even if your seat-mate coughs and sneezes the whole way to Australia [shudder].