Want to avoid the flu while flying? Try a window seat Many people worry about catching cold or flu germs on airplanes. Researchers tried to find out the risk of catching respiratory germs and where on the plane the risk is greatest. (Dylan Agbagni/Ekaterina Vladinakova/Flickr)
Want to avoid the flu while flying? Try a window seat
Lexile

Worried about catching a cold or the flu on an airplane? Get a window seat. And don't leave it until the flight is over.

That's what some experts have been saying for years. And it's perhaps the best advice coming out of a new attempt to determine the risks of catching germs on an airplane.

It turns out there's been little research on the risks of catching a cold or flu during air travel. Some experts believed that sitting in a window seat would keep a passenger away from infectious people. They may be on the aisle. Or they may be moving around.

The new study was published on March 19. It came to the same conclusion.

For somebody who doesn't want to get sick, "get in that window seat and don't move." That's according to the study's lead researcher. She is Vicki Stover Hertzberg. She works at Emory University. It is in Atlanta.

The study was ambitious. Squads of researchers jetted around the U.S. They tested cabin surfaces and air. They tested them for viruses. They observed how people came into contact with each other.

But it also had shortcomings. In a total of 10 flights, they observed only one person coughing. The experiment was done during a flu season. It wad done five years ago. But they didn't find even one of 18 cold and flu viruses they tested for.

It's possible that the researchers were unlucky. That's because they were on planes that happened to not have sick people on them, Hertzberg said.

The new study was initiated and funded by Boeing Co. It is a Chicago-based jet manufacturer. It also recruited one of the researchers. That was Georgia Tech's Howard Weiss. It had input in the writing of the results. "But there was no particular pressure to change stuff or orient it one way or the other," Hertzberg said.

The article was released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers did some mathematical modeling. They did some computer simulations. These determined how likely people were to come close to a hypothetical infectious passenger. This hypothetical infectious passenger was sitting in an aisle seat. They were on the 14th row. The simulation was based on a single-aisle airplane. They concluded that on average, only one person on a flight of about 150 passengers would be infected.

Researchers who were not involved said it would be difficult to use the study to make any general conclusions about the risks of an airline passenger getting a cold or flu. That's because the study was relatively small.

But it's a novel study about a subject that hasn't been well researched, they said. Studies have looked at how respiratory viruses spread in labs. And how they spread in homes. But "this is the first time I've seen it done for airplanes," said Seema Lakdawala. She works at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a biologist. She studies how flu spreads.

She and others not involved in the research were intrigued by the study's findings. They were interested in how people moved about the cabin. And how they came in contact with each other.

It found:

About 38 percent of passengers never left their seat. Thirty-eight percent left once. Thirteen percent left twice. And 11 percent left more than twice.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the people getting up had an aisle seat. About 80 percent of people sitting on the aisle moved at least once during their flights. This is compared with 62 percent in middle seats. The percentage of passengers in window seats who moved was 43 percent.

The 11 people sitting closest to a person with a cold or flu are at the highest risk. That included two people sitting to their left. The two to their right. The people in the row immediately in front of them. And those in the row behind.

A lot of frequent fliers will be interested in the study's results. That's according to  Edward Pizzarello. He is an investor in a Washington-area venture-capital firm. He also writes a travel blog.

"It's absolutely a fear I hear from people all the time. They just believe that they're going to get sick from going on an airplane. Or they believe they will get sick from being on an airplane," he said.

Pizzarello said he's an aisle person. That's because he doesn't want to feel trapped in the window seat if he needs to get up.

Will he now go for the window?

Maybe, he said. If a sick person sits next to him.

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