Auburn research team studying risk of picking up infectious diseases during air travel

AUBURN – How likely is it that airline passengers will pick up infectious diseases during air travel? Auburn University engineers and scientists are collaborating to answer that question by studying how different microorganisms survive in cabin air and on frequently touched surfaces.

James Barbaree of the Department of Biological Sciences and Tony Overfelt of the Department of Mechanical Engineering have been awarded a $300,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA. They are working to get a better understanding of the possible disease transmission process within airline cabins and the application of existing and emerging technologies for rapidly determining the presence of potentially dangerous disease microorganisms.

“A number of commonly held ideas, such as, ‘I often catch a cold when I fly on an airplane’ need to be thoroughly investigated and understood with the context of aircraft engineering design,” Overfelt said.

According to the FAA, last year in the United States approximately 688 million passengers shared seats, tray tables and other common areas within aircraft cabins. With recent outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 and other communicable diseases, the transmission of pathogens in confined spaces is a growing concern for travelers and flight crews.

Auburn researchers will test for the survival and release of different pathogenic bacteria and a virus on a wide variety of the material surfaces typically found in airline cabins.

“The project is designed to address risk assessment for certain types of bacteria such as Mycobacterium species, Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, other bacteria of concern, and a non-pathogenic virus that will be used as a simulant for other viruses,” Barbaree said. “Essentially, we are developing a risk assessment study that will be based on our data and not on suppositions.”

Kirby Farrington, an Auburn microbiologist and long-time pharmaceutical industry veteran, is assisting with the development of the study methodology. Farrington is a recognized expert in clean rooms and risk-based approaches to contamination control.

“The parallels between a sealed aircraft cabin and a pharmaceutical clean room will allow for the use of established risk-based systems methodologies to develop effective evaluation and control measures,” he said. “These proven methodologies can ultimately provide the airline industry with information that is designed to best protect the traveling public.”

Auburn will partner with the Harvard School of Public Health, Purdue University and Kansas State University to integrate research findings that will enable industry leaders to ensure both the safety of their crews and to address public concerns related to disease transmission.

The project is administered by the Airliner Cabin Environment Research Program of the FAA’s National Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Research in the Intermodal Transport Environment, or RITE. Overfelt is the executive director of the center.

(Contributed by Beth Smith and Timothy Meeks.)

Contact: James Barbaree, (334) 844-7511 (,
Tony Overfelt (334) 844-5940, (, or
Mike Clardy (334) 844-9999 (