Two common disease-causing bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and a strain of E. coli, can linger on commonly touched surfaces in airplane cabins for up to a week, according to new research.

Researchers from Auburn University, who presented their data at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, found that bacteria can survive the environmental conditions found inside a typical commercial airplane for days.

In their study, post-doctoral fellow Kiril Vaglenov and his colleagues examined how long MRSA and E. coli 0157:H7 could survive on six different surfaces found in airplanes. The surfaces included the materials used in passengers’ armrests, tray tables, window shades, cloth seat pockets and seat leather, as well as metal toilet buttons.

The researchers suspended the bacteria in saline, simulated human sweat and saliva, and then tested them for survival on each of the six surfaces. They also controlled the temperature (24 C) and humidity (18 per cent) to simulate the conditions of a typical airplane cabin.

MRSA lasted the longest (168 hours, or seven days) on the material from the seat-back pocket, while E. coli 0157:H7 lasted the longest (96 hours or four days) on the material from the armrest, the researchers found.

Both bacteria are well-known pathogens. E. coli 0157:H7 typically causes diarrhea in adults, but may also cause Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), which can be fatal in children younger than five.

MRSA is resistant to almost all drugs and can cause wound infections, pneumonia, sepsis and certain skin diseases.

Vaglenov said the research is a first step in investigating the potential risk of bacteria transmission during air travel.

"Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact," Vaglenov said in a statement.

"Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins."

The research team has future plans to explore effective cleaning and disinfection strategies for plane cabins. The team will also look at testing different surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to see if these surfaces can help reduce the survival of disease-causing bacteria on plane surfaces.

The research was partially funded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Office of Aerospace Medicine.