Airplanes are hotbeds for illness. Let's face it, the skies are getting cheaper and therefore more crowded. The more people you come into contact with, the better your chances of catching something nasty. Add the dry cabin air and toxic substances like hydraulic fluids, de-icing solutions and pesticides, then mix in the cold-and-flu season, and you have the ingredients for a Go-Straight-to Bed cocktail.
Part of the problem may be the airlines’ practice of mixing recirculated air with fresh air, a moneysaving move that was instituted in the 1980s. It is true that the recirculated air goes through a filtration system, but I can't say that I am over-confident about the filters’ effectiveness. If they are so effective, why is that when someone in the front of a 747 does her nails, I can immediately smell the nail polish in the very back of the airplane? And why does the New England Journal of Medicine say that travel on airplanes has been found responsible for the spread of SARS? That doesn't sound effective enough to me.
Don’t get sick when you fly. Here’s how to avoid the worst of it.
1. Come prepared. A cold can creep up on you during a multi-hour flight, so always bring a decongestant with you. This can also save you a painful landing by keeping your ears clear. Taking an herbal supplement containing echinacea before each flight can boost your immune system, and so can preparations that contain zinc. My potion of choice is Zicam.
2. Use your fan. If your seat partner has a case of the lung oysters, then turn on the fan above your seat. Point it towards you and to the side of your sick neighbor. Don’t get into a deep conversation with him, and turn your head whenever he sneezes. Better yet, ask the flight attendant if you can switch to another seat. There is nothing worse than having sneeze hairspray applied to you every two minutes.
3. Make a clean getaway. Wash your hands every chance you get and try to keep them away from your face. It may help to remember that everything you touch on that airplane has been touched by at least 50 people before you.
4. Layer it. Dress in layers to keep your body temperature on an even keel. There is nothing worse than working up a sweat as you run through the airport for a connecting flight, only to wait on a freezing Jetway to board.
5. Bring your own amenities. Unless they are wrapped in plastic, avoid such onboard provisions as blankets, pillows and headsets. Who knows what ailments afflicted the last person who used them.
6. Sick? Don’t fly! If you have a cold, stay away from the airport. There is nothing worse than flying while battling to clear your ears, plus it is common courtesy to your fellow travelers to keep your germs to yourself.
OK, you’ve taken your precautions, but you still end up getting sick — maybe even from your flight attendant. How many times have you boarded an aircraft only to be greeted by a flight attendant who is supposed to be smiling, but instead is blowing her nose? You cringe at the thought of taking a drink from her, much less getting within sneezing distance. But don’t blame her; blame the airline’s illness policy.
Flight attendants are exposed to many different people, germs, climate changes and irregular hours. Flu, colds and head lice are but a few of the maladies they contract as occupational hazards. Fortunately, flight attendants have provisions in their work rules that include paid sick time. But the airline industry is in financial trouble these days, and sick time increases operating losses. Solution? Management comes down on the employees, threatening disciplinary action for excessive sick leave. This policy scares junior employees into coming to work sick, and they in turn infect other employees and passengers. A chain reaction ensues and before you know it, you have a mucous epidemic.
My advice to anyone encountering an overtly sick flight attendant is to get the flight attendant’s name, then write the company and complain. The crew member will not get in trouble, but your complaint will send a signal to the airline to ease off on the sick-discipline issue. Second, refuse any drink or meal from anyone who is coughing or blowing. It is better to go hungry and thirsty for the duration of a plane ride than to be sick for a week.
I was able to stay off the sick list for 10 years with my current airline. One day my luck ran out and I caught the flu. I lay in bed, watched movies, sipped chicken soup and slept countless hours — all the while getting paid. I decided to start work on a new home improvement scheme while recovering from the tail end of my illness. In the store, I saw something that horrified me: my in-flight supervisor! Unfortunately, I was sure that he saw me as well. I dropped the bag of gravel I was holding and quickly spun around.
I ran down the aisle and headed for the exit at the other end of the store, and to my dismay saw my supervisor doing the same. Was he following me?
The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it became. I’m a grown man, and here I was running away from someone for fear of being scolded. I was still showing symptoms of my illness, but also knew that if I was well enough to be lifting heavy items in a home improvement store, I was probably fit enough to return to work.
After a sleepless night, I called and asked the secretary if I could speak to my supervisor. I felt I needed to explain myself.
“I am sorry, James,” she said. “He has been on sick leave for the last few days. Can I take a message?”
I smiled, hung up the phone, and the matter was never spoken of again.
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .