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Germs on a plane but not where you might expect

Germs on a plane but not where you might expect
Passengers on an Allegiant Air flight from Los Angeles to Medford, Ore. A study found that tray tables were the most unsanitary surface on a plane. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)

The most unsanitary area on a commercial plane is the tray table — the same place you set down your food and drinks during a flight.

That disturbing finding came from a study by the online trip calculating site Tripmath.com, which conducted swab tests on the surfaces of five airports and four flights.

Confounding popular perceptions, the findings show that the stall locks at airport bathrooms are pretty sanitary — even cleaner than your kitchen countertop.

Tripmath.com gauged cleanliness by measuring colony-forming units of bacteria, yeast or mold per square inch. Tray tables scored a nauseating 2,155 CFU per square inch, followed by the overhead air vent (285 CFU), the toilet flush button (265 CFU) and the seat belt buckle (230 CFU), according to the study.

At airports, the button on drinking fountains measured 1,240 CFU, while the stall locks in the bathroom measured only 70 CFU, according to the study. The typical kitchen counter measures 361 CFU, according to the National Science Foundation.

The study calls for a more efficient way to board passengers to give cabin crews more time to disinfect the cabin.

But medical experts say travelers should not panic over this study.

"Travelers are probably no more likely to become ill from exposure to contaminated surfaces and items in an airplane than in any other public place," said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist and deputy director of the California Department of Public Health.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.

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