A two-day meeting beginning today at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., will examine how diseases spread on planes and in airports.
With the spread of the H1N1 virus, airlines have taken notice and stocked up on supplies such as gloves, masks and alcohol wipes and increased their cleanings. Although they are preparing themselves for a flu outbreak, airlines insist that it is still safe to fly.
"Going on a plane is no less safe than going to church, going to work, going to school," said AirTran spokesman Christopher White.
The airflow systems in planes are designed to help minimize the risk of the H1N1 flu spreading because the air flows across the rows of seats instead of front to back. It is continually exchanged with a combination of fresh air and recirculated air that usually passes through a series of filters.
"One of the most persistent myths is that everybody on the plane is breathing the same air and that germs just endlessly recirculate within the cabin. In fact, air on the airplane is probably cleaner than in most indoor spaces," said Katherine Andrus, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association.
Yet passengers are still confined to an enclosed space where contagious diseases could spread. James Bennett, a research engineer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, completed a study of how contaminants move inside a plane.
"Contaminants, such as the small droplets emitted by a cough, do move to other areas of the cabin," Bennett said.
According to Bennett's research, within seconds of one person coughing the droplets have spread outward and nearby passengers get the biggest dose. After 15 minutes those particles could have traveled as far as 10 rows away.
Although exposure does not mean you will get sick, some passengers aren't taking any chances.
"I always have hand sanitizer with me and I always wipe that on me and on surfaces that [my son's] touching a lot," said Sarah Smith, who was travelling with her toddler.
5 Tips on How to Stay Healthy In the Air
Here are five tips from ABC News chief medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson on how to cut down on exposure and help keep you and your family healthy while traveling.
If the person next to you is coughing or sneezing, ask to switch seats. It might not always be possible, but it's worth asking.
Bring along a face mask.
Bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes.
"Constantly wash your hands," Johnson said, but not in the airplane's bathroom. "Those surfaces are typically going to be contaminated."
Bring your own pillow and blanket.
Drink bottled water.
"Bring along water and hydrate yourself," Johnson said, because it will make you "less susceptible to viral infections in general." It's also helpful because airplane air is very dry and dehydrating.
"Mostly be alert to people who might be sick and really isolate yourself," Johnson said, "or insist they be isolated."
And if you're the one who is feeling under the weather, do your fellow travelers a favor and stay home.