Serving over three billion passengers annually, air travel serves as a conduit for infectious disease spread, including emerging infections and pandemics. Over two dozen cases of in-flight transmissions have been documented. To understand these risks, a characterization of the airplane cabin microbiome is necessary. Our study team collected 229 environmental samples on ten transcontinental US flights with subsequent 16S rRNA sequencing. We found that bacterial communities were largely derived from human skin and oral commensals, as well as environmental generalist bacteria. We identified clear signatures for air versus touch surface microbiome, but not for individual types of touch surfaces. We also found large flight-to-flight beta diversity variations with no distinguishing signatures of individual flights, rather a high between-flight diversity for all touch surfaces and particularly for air samples. There was no systematic pattern of microbial community change from pre- to post-flight. Our findings are similar to those of other recent studies of the microbiome of built environments. In summary, the airplane cabin microbiome has immense airplane to airplane variability. The vast majority of airplane-associated microbes are human commensals or non-pathogenic, and the results provide a baseline for non-crisis-level airplane microbiome conditions.
Keywords: Bacteria; Commercial airplanes; Microbiome; Pandemic; Respiratory infection.