When it comes to spreading germs, cabin air can be a little better than office building air, says said Dr. Mark Gendreau, an emergency and aviation medicine expert at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.. From the NYT:
Cabin air, he said, is refreshed about 15 times an hour, compared with less than 12 an hour in an office building. On most full-size jets, the air is also circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters, which are supposed to remove 99.97 percent of bacteria and the minuscule particles that carry viruses. The cabin air is also divided into separate ventilation systems covering every seven rows or so, limiting the ability of germs to travel from one end of the plane to the other.
Of course, if you happen to be sitting next to somebody who has a bad cold, and it's a long flight, you might be out of luck.
While prominent pandemics have garnered the most attention, it is garden variety ailments, like colds or stomach viruses, that travelers should be worried about, members of the research panel said. And air travelers are more likely to pick up these bugs by touching a lavatory doorknob or a latch on an overhead bin. Charles P. Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on public hygiene, said research showed that viruses like influenza can survive for hours on such surfaces, which are not necessarily disinfected in routine cleaning between flights.
Dr. Gendreau says that the first thing he does after getting on a plane is take out a hand sanitizer and wipe down his tray table.