1. Back It Up
While riding shotgun in a car may be the coveted position, it's not so on an airplane. A Popular Mechanics study reviewing every U.S. commercial jet crash since 1971 found the higher your row number, the better your survival chances. Backseat passengers are 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than the "VIPs" sitting near the cockpit.
"In 11 of the 20 crashes, rear passengers clearly fared better. Only five accidents favored those sitting forward. Three were tossups with no particular survival pattern. In one case, seat positions could not be determined." (Popular Mechanics, 2007).
2. Don't Drink the Water
While this mantra may help international travelers avoid Montezuma's revenge, it is even more consequential to passengers on a plane. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal performed one of the most comprehensive studies of airplane water quality (or lack thereof) by filling vials from the galley and lavatory taps of 14 separate flights.
The findings read like a who's who of microscopic life: Salmonella, Staphylococcus, tiny insect eggs...you get the picture. Almost all of the samples tested at bacteria levels that were 10 to 100 times over the U.S. government limits, leading one expert to opine, "This water is not potable by any means."
In 2004, the U.S. EPA conducted its own study of water from 327 different aircraft. Think their results were any different? Think again. In addition to identifying similar bacteria as The WSJ, the government body responsible for safe water quality in the skies also found total coliform (e.g., E. Coli) in 15 percent of the 327 tests--a result considered to be high by the EPA. New rules are now being drafted for airplane water (due out in 2009), but I doubt they will state it as clear and concise as they should: "Don't serve it and don't drink it!"
And don't make the assumption that the flight crew is always serving bottled water. Recently, I was aboard an American Airlines flight where attendants served bottled water during the first pass through the plane, then switched on the sly to galley water for their second offering. Only those passengers who asked whether it was bottled were told. Although the taste alone was an immediate tip off.
3. Lid Down Before Flushing
All public bathrooms are loaded with hidden bugs and bacteria. But, when you consider that 50 to 100 people share one tiny toilet at 30,000 feet, the airplane potty is the dirtiest public head of all.
University of Arizona environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba Ph.D. attests, "There are often traces of E. coli or fecal bacteria on the faucets and door handles, because it's hard to wash your hands in those tiny sinks." However, Gerba has an even more important warning: If you don't put the toilet's lid down before, the forceful flush will vault microscopic bits and pieces of the throne's remnants into the air like a windblown dandelion.
So, when nature calls up high: Use a paper towel to handle the toilet seat, lid, tap and doorknob. Put the lid down before you flush. If no lid is attached, turn your back to the toilet while flushing and get out quick.
4. Pass on the Pillow and Blanket
Would you share a bed with a stranger? Okay, don't answer that question. How about this one: Would you put a stranger's used Kleenex up against your face and hold it there for a while? No? I'm not surprised. But I'm always amazed by the number of passengers who willingly nuzzle the airline blankets against their noses and cuddle the pillows on their faces.
Although fabric is not an effective disease transmitter (except for smallpox), placing these items so close to your eyes, ears and nose significantly enhances your chances of catching whatever the blanket's previous users were carrying. Because no federal guidelines exist for airlines to wash pillows and blankets, most clean them "as needed"--Whatever that means.
Many international flights will provide personal blankets wrapped in plastic--along with blindfolds and a pillow--these are fairly safe to use. Otherwise, if you're not going to bring your own sleep aids, leave the airline's pillows and blankets where they belong--in the overhead bins.
5. Don't Fret the Turbulence
When airplanes shake up and down or side to side at 30,000 feet, it's easy to become anxious and unnerved. But looking at the big picture should calm your fears. While you may fear that the coffee swirling turbulence could flip the plane or force it down into a crash, it's not very realistic.
Eighty percent of all aviation accidents occur shortly before, after, or during takeoff or landing. And those few tragedies that have occurred mid-flight typically involve some sort of hijacking, bombing or mid-air collision. Air turbulence has been listed as a cause of a few crashes, but for the most part these incidents related to "dirty air" from other nearby planes or weather conditions preventing proper lift-off.
While mid-flight turbulence may not force your bird into an unplanned nose-dive, it can cause injuries. Passengers not wearing seatbelts and flight crew are often casualties. Unfortunately, I once witnessed the risk first hand. After hitting a patch of turbulence, several passengers and crew were catapulted into the air--some hitting the ceiling. And, yes, the seatbelt lights were illuminated.
Keep your seatbelt fastened from wheels up to wheels down regardless of whether the captain has the light on or off. And next time you experience a bumpy ride high above the earth, take a deep breath, check your seatbelt, and remind yourself of the realistic outcomes. If that fails to provide assurance, order another cocktail.