Catch a Plane Without Catching a Cold

Planes can be disgusting flying petri dishes. Those blankets Jetblue thinks are worth $7? Stay away from them. When not sold as collectibles, they’re cleaned only when “they are visibly dirty, or only when they appear to have been used.” Inside, how to breathe fresh air and avoid drinking storage tank water. Mmmm!

  • Ask About Air Packs: Surprise flight attendants by asking how many air packs are currently working. Most planes run two to mix cabin air with fresh air, but if you ask, who knows, “the crew might make sure that all three of the packs are working for your flight, which can make a big difference.” And they thought you’d ask for a pillow…
  • Use Nasal Spray: Plane air has as little as 10% humidity, an affront to your delicate nose. Stock up on saline nasal spray to grease your body’s front line of defense.
  • Watch Out For Water: “Airlines often don’t stock enough bottled water on flights, and flight attendants have been known to refill empty bottles with the water from airplane’s holding tanks (it’s called Tappian!). To make matters worse, in 2004, the EPA tested the water from 327 randomly chosen airplanes, and it found that 13 percent of the planes had water that contained total coliform bacteria; two planes tested positive for E. coli in the water.”

    Bring an empty water bottle to fill up once you’ve cleared TSA screening.

And stay away from those icky blankets. Blech!

Catching a Plane Without Catching a Cold [Peter Greenberg]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Leah says:

    I do the final two (bring nasal spray and my own water), and it’s worked well for me. I bring empty nalgene bottles through security and refill them on the other side. I drink 1-2 liters during most flights to ward off dehydration, and I still feel a bit sapped out from the dry air. Definitely a must-do!

  2. purplesun says:

    Ugh. The water thing just made me feel a little sick.

    Well, I don’t have to worry about any of that, since air travel has now become completely unaffordable to me!

  3. willfromtexas says:

    This is why I have a privet jet…. :[ One can only dream.

  4. PeteyNice says:

    Where do you think the ice that they put in your soda comes from? It is not frozen bottled water, that is for sure.

  5. willfromtexas says:


  6. I once saw an interview with Rod Roddy who did the announcing for “The Price is Right”. He said when he traveled on a plane for the first time, it dried his throat out so much he couldn’t work. After that, he wore a mask which supplied humidity so his throat wouldn;t dry out.

  7. 12-Inch Idongivafuck Sandwich says:

    I know they reuse the cups they put the ice in, so it doesn’t surprise me they reuse the bottled water bottles.

    Don’t they sell the blankets for $7, nort rent? So wouldn’t they be clean (somewhat, more than the usual blankets for free)?

  8. geekgrrl77 says:

    Ditto on the bringing an empty bottle (I bring a steel one) and filling it up at a water fountain in the airport. I usually drink one of those on each leg of a trip, and always feel pretty hydrated– otherwise I end up feeling head-achy and awful.

    Natural eye drops are another must, so that my eyes don’t get super dry.

    I’m not a big fan of the hand sanitizing stuff, but I do bring it with me when I travel. I use it after a trip to the bathroom, or before I eat anything.

    And does anyone use the blankets? Yuck.

  9. calpchen says:

    Tip #4 to avoid getting sick: Don’t have the fish for dinner.

  10. bohemian says:

    I thought they had food and convenience stores set up past the TSA line? Buying even overpriced bottled water sounds better than what the airlines are doing. The ice comment really is grossing me out. After reading that I’m thinking bringing everything to consume on myself sounds pretty wise.

  11. VeiledThreats says:

    @PeteyNice: The ice comes from catering on the ground, it’s never been near the potable water tank on the plane. It should be as safe as the drinking water in the terminal.

    I’ve been lucky enough to not get sick from flying and I have flown plenty. Hydration and some sleep on long hauls seems to do wonders for my immune system. I’ve been sick when I left for a trip, flying with a sinus issue is awful, but a plane has yet to give me a bug.

  12. cabinaero says:

    Simple: don’t fly coach. It’s not a surprise that somebody is going to catch something when you cram 200-300 people into close quarters for several hours. Business and first are less crowded and cut down on germ transmission.

    Also — smuggle in some alcohol wipes and wipe down the plastic surfaces around your seat. You really don’t think the cleaners are wiping down the plane, do you?

    And for the love of god — do not approach the seat back pocket. Just don’t…

  13. spryte says:

    Sounds like good advice, especially about the water – nasty! Though since I get air sick and have bad allergies (and HATE flying) I just dope myself up with Dramamine and Benadryl and pass out for the flight. It’s the only way to fly! :)

  14. spryte says:

    @cabinaero: Yes, how simple. Oh wait – business and first class cost a SHIT TON of money. Whoops.

  15. scoosdad says:

    Those blankets Jetblue thinks are worth $7? Stay away from them. When not sold as collectibles, they’re cleaned only when “they are visibly dirty, or only when they appear to have been used.”

    Come again about JetBlue’s $7 blanket kits? The precise quote from the article actually says (emphasis added):

    “Add to that the fact that the blankets on many planes are washed only when they are “visibly” dirty, or only when they “appear” to have been used,…”

    Consumerist said this about the $7 JetBlue blankets not two weeks ago here:


    Ben said: “JetBlue is launching a new fee, $7 for a pillow and an allergen-rebuffing blanket.” and links to a NYTimes article that says this:

    “”Replacing our old, recycled pillows and blankets with this state-of-the-art, high-quality take-home kit is an eco-conscious, health-conscious and customer-conscious decision,” the {JetBlue} general manager for product development, Brett Muney, said.”

    Methinks you owe JetBlue an apology or a retraction for implying that their blankets are not clean. Expensive yes, dirty no.

  16. kellkell says:

    As if we needed more reasons to avoid flying. Ugh.

  17. badgeman46 says:

    Um “Ask about air packs”???? Silly! The air packs are controlled by the pilot, and are part of the airplane’s power management sytem. They arent going to mess with that simply because you are wanting more circulation.

  18. bugout99 says:

    I can’t believe I’m sticking up for an airline but the jetblue blanket packs are new and sealed, never washed and resold. Time for a little fact check :)

  19. @12-Inch Idongivafuck Sandwich: What’s to stop JetBlue from just putting used blankets in a ziploc bag and selling it as “clean”?

  20. Thorgryn says:

    @ceejeemcbeegee: Maybe because once they have been used, they go home with the passenger?

  21. deadspork says:

    News Flash: Germs exist, even in the air you breathe, no matter how many anti-bacterial wipies you use or how much anti-bacterial hand sanitizer you smear on your now-dehydrated flesh. Get over it.

    Your body needs small, normal germs and bacteria to fend off to keep your immune system strong.

    I don’t advocate drinking out of a used water bottle (when used by a stranger) or them re-using glasses, but christ. Everyone is a huge germaphobe which is ridiculous because you cannot 100% avoid them, nor should you. It would just make your immune system weaker and more prone to anything you came in contact with.

  22. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @deadspork: This message brought to you by the Medical Professionals’ Bahamas Vacation Club.

  23. cmcd14 says:

    Don’t worry America, we are not nearly afraid enough. Keep barraging us with things we need to be afraid of.

  24. deadspork says:

    @speedwell: Yes, because people who use these anti-bacterial products never get sick, and there aren’t times when you’d need a doctor that has nothing to do with germs :)

  25. deadspork says:

    Just so you guys don’t think I’m talking out of my arse here, I’ve got a couple of links to some studies on anti-bacterial wipes, sanitizers & sprays:


    (Conclusions: The tested antibacterial products did not reduce the risk for symptoms of viral infectious diseases in households that included essentially healthy persons.)
    (Conclusion: Household Antibacterial Product Use May Promote Microbial Resistance)

    There were also a few interesting studies done on the negative impact these products have on the environment, but I didn’t feel it was relavent.

  26. @deadspork: I guess the next scam for the germ-o-phobe dupes will be full-body condoms.

    The thing about the “air packs” is complete bullshit. Airlines do not keep the O2 reduced to make you dopey and compliant, though I’m sure the TSA has looked into it as a pacification method.

    You can, surprise, buy plenty of bottled water once past the TSA charade.

    The saline spray is actually useful. As for airplane ice, put on your big-girl panties and say “no ice” if you’re frightened of it. Jesus, we’ve become a nation of bawling infants.

  27. bohemian says:

    I don’t think it is totally germophobic. Everyone that went to a recent conference got sick right after they came home. I don’t know if it was the flight or something at the conference. I would rather avoid catching some mystery bug.

  28. dougkern says:

    @scoosdad: you fool. don’t you realize that this is Consumerist..where the corporation is always wrong, no questions asked?

  29. SinisterMatt says:


    Surely you can’t be serious?


  30. calpchen says:

    @SinisterMatt: I am serious… And don’t call me Shirley.

  31. digitalgimpus says:

    Using disinfecting wipes can do a lot… clean that armrest and tray table.

    The air thing is partially a myth, and partially misinterpreted.

    1. It’s true that the air is very dry. It’s done to prevent corrosion of the aircraft and kept at about 10%. Newer aircrafts like the B787 have higher humidity thanks to composites used in the construction… there’s more and more of this, so the problem is resolving. Nasal spray is a good fix.

    2. Recirculated air is only partially recirculated. There is fresh air coming in from outside. Given the speed this is done, it’s often fresher than your office building (which does the same thing).

    3. Air filters on airplanes use HEPA filters. That does get rid of virtually all viruses and bacteria (99.995% IIRC is the standard).

    4. Despite the articles claim… recirculating air goes back way see [] for details. This is an urban legend that just doesn’t die. The difference people are noticing regarding sickness since 1980 is more likely because of larger airplanes with tighter configurations resulting in more people to spread illness. Not to mention shorter aircraft turnaround time resulting in less cleaning.

    Regarding #2 and #3… large hospitals do the same thing. Just with higher humidity. Your office likely does the same (just ask a custodian, they would know).

    @SinisterMatt: That joke was in reference to the movie “Airplane”. The passengers who ate the fish got sick.

  32. Fly Girl says:

    I know they just got pwned in a lawsuit, but I seriously swear by Airborne. Well, a combination of nasal spray, saline eye drops, lots and lots of water, getting up and walking around periodically, getting plenty of rest, hand sanitizer (’cause those bathrooms are naaaaaaasty), and Airborne. Maybe it’s really the other stuff that keeps me healthy on multiple 14 hour flights, but I’m too paranoid to take the Airborne out of the mix!

    In my day-to-day, I’m no germ-o-phobe. I normally don’t even advocate the use of hand sanitizer. But when I’m about to be stuck on a flight for 14 hours with 300 other people who all have God-knows-what, I really don’t want to get to my destination sick as a dog.

    Things I don’t care about: the ice, the air quality (so long as there IS air, I’m cool), the blankets, the pillows, and the tap v. bottled water.

  33. TVarmy says:

    @deadspork: I wouldn’t say I’m usually a germophobic person, but the plane is the exception. I don’t fly regularly, so it’s a weird environment for me, and I imagine my immune system can’t handle it. Also, when I’m flying, it’s for a vacation that’s being paid top dollar for. I’m not going to waste that vacation sick in a hotel room/relative’s guest room. It’s just not good business sense to risk getting sick.

    Granted, there are still possibilities, but it’s not like worrying about germs will make my ticket cost more or the plane move slower.

  34. TVarmy says:

    @digitalgimpus: Don’t call him Shirley. Seriously, you didn’t catch that joke?

  35. Islandkiwi says:

    I just flew with my 9-month old a few weeks ago, and when she stood on my knees and placed her hands on the (unoccupied) seat in front of me, it made me wonder when (if ever) the seating upholstery gets cleaned or replaced.

    Longest sentence ever, thank you!

  36. JAX2BOS says:

    Hey. I’m your JetBlue flight attendant. As stated by scoosdad and numerous press releases and articles from the press the pillow and blanket kits are new direct from manufacturer. If someone even left a blanket on the plane what do you think we do with it? We throw it out. We have no need for it as we have already sold it. Our pillow and blanket kits are NOT repacks. And yes, a retraction with clarification should be posted.

  37. SharkD says:

    @calpchen: That’s why I always have the lasagna.

    @digitalgimpus: It looks like you’ve picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

  38. brandyk says:

    I have had airplane ice tainted by chemicals before. Disgusting. I buy the hugest bottle of water I can once I pass through security. Screw filling it from the fountains. Gross. I fly frequently and ridiculous amounts of good clean water keep me healthy.

  39. SharkD says:

    @digitalgimpus: The 787 is the first and, currently, only all-composite commercial airliner, and it has yet to make its first flight.

  40. cabinaero says:

    @spryte: Not necessarily. Who says I’m the one paying for my ticket?

  41. dougkern says:

    I love all these people talking about their tips to staying healthy on flights after digitalgimpus posted a long message disproving the “airplanes are hotbeds for disease” myths. Stay healthy with fake medicine and expensive bottled water!

  42. Meathamper says:

    I ask about air packs because it’s fun to see the attendants (especially US Air, those guys are a hoot) walk back and forth to check…try it sometime.

  43. carbonero says:

    I spent two months super-budget traveling in southeast asia and never got sick. i took Korean Air home and caught a nasty lung infection that needed antibiotics.

    When we got on the plane for the 12-1/2 hour flight our aisle reeked of urine. the stench was horrible. When we complained they simply sprayed some disgusting air freshener to cover it up, only then it smelled like air-freshener urine. FOR 12 HOURS. ewwww. Don’t ever fly Korean air.

    also, don’t forget by law they have to spray the cabin with nasty poison bug killer every flight so insects aren’t introduced to their host country. There are some seriously bad chemicals your sitting in for hours.

  44. Jandek says:

    you people are all big wusses. I’ve never had dehydration problems on flights.

  45. digitalgimpus says:

    @sharkd: It’s the only one close to production. Boeing’s strategy for future planes is composite. Same with Airbus. Smaller private jets are also going this way.

    It’s not being done for the sake of humidity though… it’s being done since composites offer much more strength for much less weight. This means more efficiency fuel wise (a big win for airlines). It also allows for less structure in the aircraft design meaning larger windows, and thinner everything. The corrosion resistance is really an extra.


    1. Lack of sleep. People loose sleep when they travel. Crossing timezones, traveling through the night etc. Loosing sleep lowers your immune system quickly and can last for weeks. So on your way back from your trip, your extra vulnerable. That’s why people often get sick on the return part of their trip.

    2. You build immunity against germs you encounter on a routine basis. Germs vary based on location. That’s why the flu vaccine is different for different places. When you fly, your going enough of a distance to bring you to a place where you have no real immunity against local cold strains. Your vulnerable by definition. That’s also why the locals can drink the water… and you can’t.

    The airplane sickness myth is really just that… a myth. People assume because there’s a common factor, it must be the culprit. Forgetting that there are many other factors to take int account.

    Want to prevent getting sick?

    1. Wipe down solid surfaces with a disinfecting wipe.
    2. Don’t touch handrails, etc. in the airport any more than you must.
    3. Wash your hands frequently. Use hand sanitizer before eating or touching your face.
    4. Keep your hands away from your face.

    The reason doctors don’t get sick, despite being around sick people all day isn’t really their super immune system. It’s because they know that illnesses aren’t really that airborne. You normally catch it by touch. That’s why they wash their hands so frequently. That’s why nurses disinfect surfaces regularly. That’s why there’s paper on the examination table.

    Wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face. Wash your hands again. Get a good night sleep. Wash your hands once again.

    It’s not hard. It’s just common sense.

  46. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    I always look foward to flying…I’ve only had one delay and that was when I was 14 so I didnt care.

    However, it should be mentioned that last summer I flew to the UK on BA and I just knew I was going to catch some airborn flesh eating desease, the plane was grotesque but what killed me was the temp, with all the people cramped like sardines they kept the temp in the high 70s the whole flight, felt like we were being cultured.

    I was actually jealous of a woman who was sitting near me and my fiancee, she was so afraid of flying that she didnt even notice all that stuff…some people have all the luck, ya know.

  47. Indecent says:


    None of the flights I’ve been in in the last two years had a choose of business or first class. They weren’t puddle hoppers either – but try to realize that not all flights, especially anymore, use the large planes that have separate sections.

    The most commercially ordered plane in the world is the Boeing 737 – it only seats 150 or so, and its still more than possible to catch a cold there. Financial means notwithstanding, it’s simply not easy to fly first class anymore.

  48. Coelacanth says:

    @speedwell: There’re also some interesting studies in immunology that find a link between decreases in infectious diseases (germs) and an increased occurrence and potency of allergies.

    The hypothesis is that if the immune system isn’t fighting a real infection, it just starts going haywire on harmless environmental factors.

  49. james says:

    I’ve seen the flight attendants refill the water bottles. The worst thing is they each take a full large water bottle for themselves and mark it with their name, as they would never drink the holding tank water, and then serve the holding tank water to unsuspecting passengers.
    I went to get a glass of water on a recent flight, and although there were unopened water bottles in the kitchen area, they filled everyone’s glasses from the holding tank after partially pulling the curtain to hide what they were doing.

  50. Orv says:

    Drink pop or beer. There is no Coca-Cola holding tank. ;)

  51. Hogan1 says:

    @scoosdad: You’re right, I believe they’re handed out in sealed packaging the customer has to open. The story should be modified as it’s false and misleading.

    As for other airlines…well.. bring your own blanket and pillow.

  52. ironchef says:

    Seriously you don’t need to be scared fricking germs. That’s what’s your immune system is for.

  53. NotATool says:


    Replacing our old, recycled pillows and blankets with this state-of-the-art, high-quality take-home kit is an eco-conscious, health-conscious and customer-conscious decision,” the {JetBlue} general manager for product development, Brett Muney, said.

    Holy Greenwashing Batman!!! Health-conscious yes, but FAIL on all three R’s:

    Reduce: FAIL
    Reuse: FAIL
    Recycle: FAIL

  54. Orv says:

    @NotATool: It depends on which has a higher environmental impact — manufacturing and disposing of the blankets, or hauling them to a laundry service and washing them. I have no idea which is better for the environment. I seem to recall that disposable diapers vs. washable diapers is essentially a tossup, though.

  55. NotATool says:

    @Orv: Good point, but considering they don’t wash the blankets unless they’re visibly dirty…

  56. surreal says:

    @bohemian: this isn’t always the case for flights originating abroad. in asia you typically go through security screening right outside the gate, and you’re lucky if there is even a restroom available once you’ve passed security. beverages available for purchase are extremely rare in my experience. on a recent flight, even my empty bottle for refill in the gate area was confiscated on “no liquid” grounds – obviously a flawed interpretation, but that doesn’t change the fact that i was forced to spend the next 22 hours coveting the half-full glasses that the flight attendants were serving in an obvious attempt to conserve what water they had on board.

  57. LVP says:

    Keep these tips coming. I’m flying for the first time since 2000 on Sunday. Thanks!

  58. Silky John-STON! says:

    The A-1, top notch, BEST EVER health advice I’ve ever gotten while flying (30-40 times a year) is:

    Don’t. Rub. Your. Eyes.

    Since applying this simple rule, I have not gotten ONE sniffle from flying.

  59. vrn3b says:

    @Orv – or sparkling/carbonated water. Then you know it’s not from the tank.