You board your flight, settle into your seat and suddenly you hear it: the sneezing, the coughing.
Given the close quarters, are you doomed? Not necessarily.
Proximity to a sick person is a key factor, says a study published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists.
Passengers two or more seats away and one row in front or back of a sick person are unlikely to be infected, reported the researchers from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
But bring antibacterial wipes, as viruses can remain on surfaces such as tray tables, seat belts and lavatory handles, they reported.
The researchers monitored how often passengers moved about the cabin and interacted with fellow travelers and crew members. They also collected air and surface samples during five round-trip flights from the East to West coasts.
"We found that direct disease transmission outside of the 1-meter area of an infected passenger is unlikely," said Howard Weiss, a study author and mathematics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
One way to protect yourself is to stay in your seat if you're not near a sick person. Not moving around the plane, even skipping that trip to the restroom, can cut your chances of coming into contact with an infected person or surface.
Choosing a window seat and not leaving it until you get to your destination also might help, said the study's lead author, Vicki Hertzberg, a nursing professor at Emory University.
The study, funded in part by Boeing, also uncovered trends about passenger behavior:
- About 40 percent of travelers never leave their seats; another 40 percent get up once and 20 percent are up two or more times during their flight.
- Those who sit in aisle seats are more likely to move around versus those who sit in window seats - 80 percent vs. 43 percent. Those who sit in middle seats fell in the middle at 62 percent.
- Of those who do move around, most are headed to the bathroom. Fewer get up to check the overhead compartment.
- On flights observed by the researchers, the wait for the front lavatory was nearly twice as long as for the back lavatories.