How to Clean an Airplane Seat (and Other Germy Surfaces on the Plane)

airplane aisle and seats
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

If you’ve ever watched from the gate as your plane lands, disembarks passengers, and boards your group in under an hour, you know there isn’t nearly enough time for a deep cleaning between every flight. So those seats you and your family are about to settle into for the next few hours? Chances are they’re practically swimming in germs.

Studies have shown that tray tables (yes, the one that you’re about to eat on) may be even dirtier than airplane bathrooms. And they’re not the only part of the airplane seat you’ll need to worry about. Protect yourself by learning how to clean an airplane seat.

The Germiest Surfaces on the Plane

A 2018 investigation by the consumer advocate news series Marketplace revealed that the dirtiest surfaces on an airplane are (in order): the headrest, the seat pocket, the door handle of the bathroom, the tray table, and the seat belt.

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The headrest, tray table, and seat belt are easy to clean if you have the right supplies. Knowing that the door handle to the bathroom is filthy is a good reminder to disinfect accordingly. And the seatback pocket, well, it’s probably better to just steer clear of it (more about that below).

How to Clean and Disinfect an Airplane Seat

disinfecting an airplane tray table, one of the germiest parts of the plane
Make sure to use enough wipes that surfaces can stay wet long enough to kill germs (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

To clean your airplane seat, use a disinfectant wipe to thoroughly wipe down the entire seat. Pay special attention to the headrest (any paper or cloth covering over the headrest likely hasn’t been changed in a while), the seatbelt buckle, arm rest, tray table, and the entertainment system screen and controller. If you’re in a window seat, you’ll also want to wipe down any surfaces you’ll be leaning against or touching.

Seatback pockets are tough to fully sanitize, so try to avoid using those as much as possible. Some people travel with their own own seatback organizer (usually they hang from the seat and avoid the seatback pocket altogether) that keep all the essentials easily accessible without all the germs.

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Note that a regular sanitizing wipe can sometimes wreak havoc on a touchscreen, so you may want to bring along a travel-sized disinfectant wipe that’s specially designed for electronics. Use that on your personal TV screen, lest you sabotage your only hope of entertainment for the plane ride. (Or better yet, bring your own tablet and headphones.) Save an extra disinfectant wipe for the bathroom door handle, too.

Disinfectant Wipes vs. Sanitizing Wipes

Be sure that you’re choosing a disinfectant wipe, and not a sanitizing wipe, to clean your airplane seat, as only wipes labeled as a disinfectant will kill viruses.

You’ll also need to use the wipes correctly, not just give the surfaces a quick wipe. Pack plenty of travel-sized disinfectant wipes so that you can properly saturate each area that you’re cleaning. The disinfectant needs a certain amount of “contact time” in order to properly kill germs—check the instructions to see how long the surface needs to remain saturated. The Clorox wipes I use say that the surface needs to stay wet for around four minutes to properly kill germs.

Once they see your freshly cleaned airplane seat, your aisle-mates will either think you’re crazy or genius—so it’s always nice to have an extra wipe or two on-hand to share the cleanliness wealth.

After you’ve wiped down your seat, clean your hands with hand sanitizer (not a disinfectant wipe, most of which are not designed to be used on skin). Then sit back and recline—or not, depending on your moral stance on the issue—and enjoy the ride in your clean airplane seat.

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Caroline Teel
Caroline Teel has traveled to all seven continents but still has hundreds of places on her bucket list. She has been published on SmarterTravel, The Sun, Jetsetter, TripAdvisor, Business Insider, FamilyVacationist, and more.