Some cold comfort in new study on airline illness risks
We've all seen the movies like Contagion - where a mankind-ending virus spreads like wildfire from continent to continent on our planes and through our cities.
And I wouldn't be alone in feeling cold-like symptoms hours after stepping off a long flight that's not just down to jetlag.
But, Hollywood fantasy aside, loss of productivity through illness is a serious drain on your business - and the opposite of what corporate travel should be about, that is, gaining new customers and growth.
Thirteen years ago, at the height of the Bird Flu panic, it was reckoned that a serious outbreak could cost the Irish economy at least €2bn, so with three billion of us jetting around the world each year, how safe are our skies?
A new academic study has looked at the issue, led by a team from universities in Atlanta, home of the world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson, handling 100 million passengers a year.
The report notes that while over a dozen serious cases of in-flight transmission of diseases have been recorded, the potential threat hasn't been researched in-depth up to now.
The team took 10 trips from Atlanta in Georgia to the US west coast, spreading themselves out in single-aisle cabins on those intercontinental flights to examine passenger movements and simulated transmission of germs, analysing every moment of the inflight experience on iPads.
The good news? Our fears may be overblown.
"The risk of infection is really very low unless you're seated around somebody who's sick," one of the study's leaders, Dr Vicki Stover Hertzberg, told the Sunday Independent from Atlanta.
"What we were modelling is what's called large droplet transmission - that's the stuff when you're sneezing or coughing and it comes out and you can almost see the droplets."
But Hertzberg, from the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University, added: "Gravity takes those droplets almost immediately to the floor. They go about a metre, so the risk is to the passenger seated within about a metre, and a metre is something you can reach out and touch with your arm."
So the danger zone is beside, or a row in front or behind somebody who's spluttering and sneezing, which doesn't sound so bad. But there is a but - lack of transmission is also due to the fact that so few of us move around. In a typical medium-haul flight, with just a single aisle, like those tested, roughly four out of 10 passengers never leave their seats, around the same number get up just once, while only 20pc get up two or more times, the study found.
On a long-haul flight, with more than one aisle and a longer flight time, that might not be the case to the same extent.
One plus point is that business class has its benefits in this area. Given the distance between you and your fellow passengers, the risk of droplet strikes should be much smaller, so it's as good an argument as any to get your travel manager to sit you up front next time you're away.
But why do some of us feel ill after getting off a plane? Recall bias might be an issue, Dr Hertzberg says, adding that while someone being ill near us on board might stick in our minds, we'll tend to forget similar instances of people coughing around us, whether in a hall or office earlier in the day, or on public transport en route to the airport.
The researchers also took samples of air, and from the sides of meal tray and seatbelt buckles, as well as inside and outside lavatory doors. "We did pre- and post-flight tests for 18 common respiratory viruses, and we found there was nothing.
"I felt that was pretty positive - the air on modern airplanes is so much cleaner nowadays, probably cleaner than your typical office building as it's being refreshed so often."
The research was carried out in partnership with Dr Howard Weiss of Georgia Institute of Technology, who has carried out similar studies in hospital emergency rooms, with the US faced by similar outbreaks of flu as ourselves during the winter.
The study was commissioned by Boeing to study the state of aircraft, so airlines must be breathing a sigh of relief that it's not bad at all on board.
So what if you're still a bit paranoid, and not a fan of cabin air? "Those paper face masks don't do much," she says. " The key to keeping healthy on a flight is to keep your hands clean, keep them away from your face and take your flu shot - it may not be 100pc effective but it's better off with it than without it."
Sunday Indo Business