It was like one of those nightmares that unfold in slow motion. The ones where you want to run, but you can’t move. You want to scream, but you can’t make a sound.
I was strapped into my aisle seat, waiting for the last passengers to board the plane, when she came walking down the aisle. She looked harmless enough – a sweet young girl of about five.
It was only as she came closer that I saw the runny nose and heard the growling wet cough that sounded like an idling Harley-Davidson.
Like all five-year-olds, she wasn’t too concerned with etiquette, especially the covering-your-mouth-when-coughing etiquette, and proceeded to cough her way down the aisle. One cough was perfectly timed just as she approached my seat. That’s when I did the silent scream.
Like a high-definition sci-fi movie, I could almost see the viral microspores hurtling towards me through the air.
I knew my fate and, 24 hours later, I knew I was unwell. Twelve hours after that, I was coughing and spluttering like an idling Harley-Davidson.
In today’s global village, more than 3 billion people fly every year, which has ensured that in-flight transmission of infectious diseases has now been flagged as a global health problem. Understandably so.
Those dystopian sci-fi movies where a deadly airborne virus spreads rapidly around the planet are now quite reasonable.
Most people who get on a plane don’t realise they are carrying a virus because they can be infectious for days before the symptoms appear.
Infecting other people is the easy part – the main transmission route for flu germs is respiratory droplets, which are propelled over short distances when an infectious person sneezes, coughs, talks or even breathes.
There is a standard “infectious zone” around an infected person of about one metre. In a hermetically sealed aircraft, it becomes a veritable germ orgy.
In these confined spaces, the one metre rule translates into the “two-by-two rule”, where a virus can travel to two seats in front of you and to two people on either side.
The fact that you are trapped, sitting in a sealed environment with air that is recycled for the duration of your flight, simply provides the germs with a joyride.
But it’s not only fellow passengers you need to worry about. Research has shown that a sick cabin crew member will most likely infect an average of four to five passengers per flight, with those sitting in the middle or aisle seats at greatest risk.
Being both a germophobe and a frequent flyer, and one who has succumbed to infection, just makes my phobia worse, so I did more research.
You’d think that aircraft toilets would be bacterial headquarters on a flight, with the average ratio of toilets to passengers (depending on flight load) ranging from 1:24 to 1:43.
Toilets are bad, but a study by TravelMath revealed that tray tables carry eight times more bacteria per square inch than the flush button on the toilet – and this is the surface you eat off. Charming.
I now routinely wipe down my tray table with an antibacterial wet wipe. I get raised eyebrows from the people sitting next to me, but I no longer care.
One of the reasons for this is the increased pressure airlines are under to turn a flight around as fast as possible to remain profitable, and to keep to schedule.
In most cases, passengers are already waiting in line to board a flight while the previous passengers disembark. All the airline cleaning staff have time to do is remove trash and make the aircraft look neat – there is no time to wipe down every tray table.
But wait, there’s more. The same research points out that other bacteria holding areas are the overhead air vent control, your seat buckle and the headrests on aisle seats because people lean on these when walking down the aisle.
This makes sense because it’s not just airborne propulsion of germs – if you are sick and cough into your hand then touch objects (like escalator hand rails in malls or door handles at the office), you pass the bacteria on.
The unsuspecting person who touches these surfaces after you just has to rub their eyes, nose or mouth, and the viral connection is complete. So even if you’re not a frequent flyer but work in an open-plan office, all these modes of viral infection apply.
In Asia, Japan especially, it is quite common to see people walking around in public wearing surgical masks. I had initially thought that they were fellow neurotic germophobes not wanting to inhale any airborne germs – then I visited the country.
While masks are used as a preventive measure, they are more commonly worn by people who are sick.
They wear the masks as a courtesy to their fellow citizens to ensure they don’t spread their infections. That’s an empathic cultural shift we all need to consider.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com