The Worst Thing You're Touching at the Airport, Infectious Disease Doc Warns

Here's what to handle with care to stay safe in crowded airports.

Pent-up demand for travel has sent Americans streaming through airports in droves. And while the air in the cabins of airplanes in flight is heavily filtered and generally considered safe, airports themselves can pose more of a danger to travelers, given the crowded, indoor environment. But you can keep yourself safer as you flow through busy terminals if you know where danger is most likely to lurk. Read on for some of the most germ-ridden airport surfaces and how to protect yourself better, according to Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo.

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The check-in kiosk is a high-touch surface.

Woman using check-in kiosk at the airport

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, airports were moving toward contact-free interfaces at various touch-points. And the pandemic only accelerated the move in that direction. Still, you may likely have to touch at least one point as you prepare to board your flight: a digital kiosk for checking in. "If you check into a kiosk, you're going to have to hit all those buttons for your ticket and checking your bags, and that's a high-touch surface," Russo notes.

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Wash or sanitize your hands after touching the kiosk.

Woman using check-in kiosk at the airport

Dangerous germs and viruses can enter our bodies through our mouths, noses, and eyes. So wash or sanitize your hands immediately after completing your business at an airport kiosk so you don't inadvertently pass anything you picked up there into your body when you touch your face.

"Anything that multiple other individuals—or any other individual—might have touched" is an area of concern, Russo says, and in a modern airport, that most likely means the kiosk. He calls it the "fly in the ointment" in what is otherwise a mostly touch-free environment these days.

The security bins are high-touch surfaces, too.

Passengers putting their items into bins at the airport

Another potential source of contamination is the plastic bins we use to shuttle our belongings through security checkpoints. "Depending on whether you're a TSA-trusted traveler [with fewer requirements at security checkpoints], you've got to put your computer and some combination of shoes and belts into those bins," Russo says, "So that's a second potential high-touch surface, but once you get through security, you really don't need to touch much in terms of public surfaces."

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Find an isolated place to eat or drink in the airport.

Passengers eating at airport food court

If you're planning to eat or drink anything during your time in the airport, Russo recommends finding a private place to do so—even if it's just in a quiet corner or an open boarding gate. "You're going to be dropping your mask [below your nose and mouth] and also potentially touching another surface if you sit at a table, so hand hygiene is going to be the order of the day," Russo says. "Obviously in the age of COVID, I advise people to avoid that if possible, but if you definitely need to eat something, do go to a secluded area in the airport and drop your mask between bites and sips and pop it up again."

Avoid airport crowds if you can.

Man in mask boarding flight

Overall, airports are crowded places now given high demand, so carve out social distancing space whenever possible. Whether the concern is COVID or any other airborne respiratory virus—and even whenever federal mask mandates are no longer in place—"you might want wear a mask because airport terminals are really crowded," Russo advises. "And so that's a great place to get infected."

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Alesandra Dubin
Alesandra Dubin is a lifestyle editor and writer based in Los Angeles. Read more
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