Surprising: The Toilet Isn’t The Dirtiest Part Of An Aircraft

With the world’s travelers in a panic over the spread of the coronavirus, many are asking what they should be doing on board an aircraft to avoid exposure to bugs. Aside from N95 masks and hand sanitizer, what else should we be thinking about if we are planning to travel soon? Which is the most germ-infested part of an aircraft?

Cleaning a plane
Airlines are taking great care to clean their planes in the wake of the coronavirus, but where are the most germs hiding? Photo: Getty

Well, for a start, the chances of coming across the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, on board a plane are fairly slim. Serious travel restrictions are aiming to limit exposure to infected people, and any aircraft considered to have potentially been exposed are undergoing extensive decontamination to try and avoid the spread.

Nevertheless, if you’re keen to minimize your germ contact on your next flight, it would help to know where’s a hot-bed for bacteria and bugs. Thankfully, Travel Math has done the hard work for us and has uncovered the dirtiest areas on planes. You might be surprised by the results.


Are all the bugs in the bathroom?

Travel Math sent out a microbiologist to collect samples from five different airports and four flights to find out where the dirtiest places are. The samples were sent to a lab to evaluate the total bacterial population per square inch. The results, expressed in the number of colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch, were somewhat surprising.


If you asked me where I’d likely avoid on a plane if I was concerned about hygiene, the first place that would spring to mind would be the bathroom. After all, that’s where everyone does their business, and is surely going to be one of the dirtiest places, right? Wrong.

According to the research, the flush button in the toilet had an average of 265 CFU across the four flights. One area of the plane had ten times that much, and it’s somewhere you’re much more likely to be in contact with too. The seatback table!

Tray table
Make sure to keep all your food on the tray and off the table! Photo: Getty

The study found tray tables on the four flights sampled had 2,155 CFU/sq. in., way more than the toilet fact, it was the worst place on the entire plane for bugs, far worse than the seat belt buckle, at 230 CFU/sq. in. and the overhead air vent, which had 285 CFU/sq. in.

It’s interesting that the air vent was also higher than the toilet flush, showing just how many sticky fingers end up poked up there during a flight. Or worse!

How do aircraft compare to other items?

So we know that your tray table could have as many as 2,000 CFU/sq. in. (or more), but what does that mean in reality? Well, in tests conducted by the National Science Foundation, most ‘dirty’ places in the home fell well under the bacterial levels found on airline tray tables.

For example, a home toilet seat will typically have 172 CFU/sq. in., making it leaner than just about anywhere on an aircraft. A kitchen countertop is generally dirtier, coming in at 361 CFU/sq. in. Money, which we often think of as grubby and unhygienic, actually averages just 5 CFU/sq. in.

Cleaning plane
Apart from the tray table, most other parts of the plane were only as dirty as your kitchen counters. Photo: Getty

However, if you own a pet, you could be much worse off. The National Science Foundation found that typical pet toys have a massive 19,000 CFU/sq. in., while their food dishes have a staggering 306,000 CFU/sq. in.

The good news is that across all 26 samples collected by Travel Math for their study, not one part of an aircraft or airport had any presence of fecal coliforms such as E. coli. These are the most dangerous bacteria which are most likely to make you sick, so it’s good to know that cleaning regimens are being effective in tackling these.

Will you be wiping your tray table next time you fly? Let us know in the comments!


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I always wipe the whole area where I will be touching when going on a plane. Yes, the seatbelts are the most disgusting to me.

Allen Deiter



I won’t necessarily be wiping it, but I would never rest my cutlery on it, nor eat anything I’d dropped on it.
I remember years ago seeing or reading something from a cabin crew member who said they’d seen babies nappies changed on the tray-table.!!!


In the past I’ve sat in bulkhead & exit-row seating, where the tray-table stows in the armrest.

In at least 2 of those, there was mould & other festering stuff not on the tray, but inside the armrest stowage area.!!!

I can’t actually imagine how you clean that area properly, whilst the seat is on the aircraft.?

Geoff herbert

How about the remote unit

Gerhard Smith

That I do all the time

Gerhard Smith

That I do all the time, clean my tray and the toilet seat, I’ll do the rest next time G


Drop a few anti-vac wipes in a ZipLoc for travel. It only takes a second or two to protect yourself on an aircraft.


Another “nice to know” for people who regularly have coffee and tea in an airplane. The water comes from watertanks in the galley which are usually filled again after each flight or after a few flights (depending on the kind of service on board). These tanks or only cleaned every few months and with some airlines even less frequent than that. During this time algae and bacteria build up in these water tanks. Just so you know. I myself work in the aircraft galley industry and never ever take coffee or tea on board.

B. McNally


Kirk Watson

Headrests have been cited in other studies as the worst surface for germs in a plane with the tray table also being bad. Wipe them and don’t put your hands on a headrest which we all seem to do when getting in and out of our seats!


You bet-I will wipe down everything around me!


The CEO and the Shareholders are usually the dirties.