Scientists analyzed your risk of getting sick when sitting in a window, middle, or aisle seat on the plane — and there’s a clear winner

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  • Data scientists have investigated how germs travel around on planes, and discovered sitting in the window seat is the best way to stay healthy.
  • The worst place on the plane for catching germs is the aisle, where you’ll come in contact with a lot more people over the course of your flight.
  • If you’re unlucky enough to sit directly next to someone sick, you’ve got a pretty good chance at getting infected, no matter which seat you choose.

A bad seat on the plane can make you sick, quite literally.

Scientists have discovered that sitting within a three-row radius of another sick passenger can up your odds of catching their cough, cold or flu to around 80%. The findings, released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, came from a study funded by Boeing.

To find out how risky it is for your health to fly around the US, the researchers boarded 10 cross-country flights. They documented how people moved around in-flight, collecting hundreds of germ samples from the planes along the way.

The researchers discovered that planes aren’t terribly germy places to be, as long as you’re sitting more than three rows away from a sick passenger. But if you’re seated in that danger zone, it’s much better for your health to choose the window seat.

Unlike plane passengers, plane germs are not long-distance travelers. In fact, airplane air is usually circulated through hospital-grade filters, designed to remove 99.97% of all bacteria, as NBC News reports.

The study authors noted that illness particles, spewed from talking, sneezing, coughing, or breathing are “unlikely to be directly transmitted beyond 1 meter (3.28 feet) from the infectious passenger” on a plane. That means the window seat can be a kind of personal solitary confinement space.

But keeping a safe distance from the sick people out in the aisles isn’t the only reason why the window seat might be the most sanitary choice. The researchers also found that window-sitters were far less likely to leave their seats during a flight. Only 43% got up on the cross-country trips they observed, compared with 62% of people sitting in the middle seats, and 80% in the aisle.

In other words, there’s probably a bit of beneficial self-quarantining going on for passengers in the window seats, because it’s more inconvenient for them to get up.

People who sit in the aisle on the other hand, feel more free to roam the plane, and are more at risk for catching others’ germs. On average, they have 64 “contacts” with other passengers that could allow them to catch an illness on a cross-country flight.

But the number of potentially sickening contacts with other passengers drops to 58 when people sit in the middle seat, and plummets further to just 12 average contacts if they sit by the window. That’s an important distinction, because we know that germs are most commonly spread by sneezing, coughing, or breathing on healthy people. If you come in contact with fewer passengers, you’re less likely to get sick.

Just because you sit by the window doesn’t mean you’re completely safe from harm. Flu particles can travel as far as six feet away from a sick person, and last for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces. So it’s important to practice good hand washing and remember that everyone’s immunity is a little different: just because your neighbor is ill doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to catch their bug, whether you’re crammed into a plane, or sitting on the ground.