Researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that a window seat offers the best protection against sick passengers — provided you stay seated and don’t roam around the cabin. (stock photo)

You board you flight, settle into your seat and suddenly you hear it: the sneezing, the coughing.

Given the close quarters, does this mean you’re doomed?

Not necessarily.

In a study published this month in the  journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology deployed a team to study how infections spread on an airplane. The researchers monitored how often passengers moved about the cabin and interacted with fellow travelers and crew members.  They also collected air and surface samples during five roundtrip flights from the East to West coasts.

Proximity to a sick person is a key factor. Researchers found that passengers two or more seats away and one row in front or back of a sick person were unlikely to be infected. But one might consider bringing antibacterial wipes as a precaution, since researchers also found that viruses can remain on surfaces such as tray tables, seat belts and lavatory handles.

“We found that direct disease transmission outside of the one-meter area of an infected passenger is unlikely,” said Howard Weiss, a professor in the school of mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and one of the study’s authors.

One way to protect yourself if you’re not in proximity to someone who is sick? Stay in your seat. By not moving around the plane and perhaps even skipping that trip to the restroom, you can lessen your chances of coming into contact with a person — or a surface — that’s been infected.

Choosing a window seat and not leaving it until you get to your destination might also help, the study’s lead author, Vicki Hertzberg, a professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodson Woodruff School of Nursing told the Associated Press.

The study, funded in part by Boeing, also found interesting trends about passenger behavior:

  • About 40 percent of travelers never leave their seats; another 40 percent get up once and 20 percent are up two or more times during their flight.
  • Those who sit in aisle seats are more likely to move around versus those who sit in window seats — 80 percent vs 43 percent. Those who sit in middle seats fell in the middle at 62 percent.
  • Of those who do move around the cabin,- most are headed to the bathroom, while a smaller portion leave their seats to check the overhead compartment.
  • On the flights observed by the researchers, the wait for the front lavatory was nearly twice as long as for the back lavatories.