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Oh no! Filthy secrets about germ exposure during airline travel

Heading out on your summer vacation? Before you leave home, here’s the dirty truth about all the germs lying in wait for you and your family on your journey.

In the first of a three-part series, TODAY correspondent Jeff Rossen and his national investigative team took three different cross-country flights, each on a different major airline, and gathered samples every step of the way. The team applied test kit swabs from the moment they got to the airport to the time they landed and sent the samples off to a certified laboratory for analysis by microbiologists. 

The results may persuade travelers to tuck a package of antibacterial wipes into their luggage the next time they hit the road.

First stop: The airport kiosk where many people pick up their boarding passes. Despite all the people who run their fingers over the touch screen, lab results came back completely clean.

However, the next test site — the security line — produced very different results. Tests of two bins used to collect shoes, bags and just about everything else dumped in for the X-ray machine revealed the presence of dangerous bacteria. One bin yielded evidence of fecal matter at levels high enough to make people sick. 

“We're talking about skin or soft-tissue infections, which can potentially lead to overwhelming infections in your bloodstream,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, who works in the emergency room at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital.

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The germ situation isn’t any more comforting once travelers board the plane, where Rossen’s team spotted crumbs all over aisle floors and mysterious stains on their seats.

Hollis Gillespie, a travel expert who worked as a flight attendant for 23 years, isn’t surprised. She said she’s seen it all, including people “changing the baby’s diaper on the tray table.”

Those tray tables at passengers' seats were exactly the spot where the highest levels of bacteria were found. And while all the armrests came back negative, tests on seat belts showed that they were filthy. One even found “human bacteroides," something Glatter described as "very serious."

"These are bacteria that live in our gut and our intestines. These are dangerous bacteria that cause serious infections” and are easily transferable through a single touch, he said.

In all, Rossen and his investigative team took 13 samples on their flights. Nine of them returned with positive results for harmful germs.

Most airlines say they wipe down every tray table and other surfaces in between flights, but one insider questioned whether ground crews actually have enough time to do so. Gillespie said it would help if airlines could provide longer turnaround times between flights.

"It would be a more sanitary environment for their passengers,” she said.

The former flight attendant offered additional advice for germaphobes: Don’t walk around barefoot, because the carpet can be disgusting. She also recommended carefully checking the seat-back pocket before reaching inside because some passengers will use the air-sickness bag and then return it without telling anyone. Scrubbing down everything around you with wipes also can't hurt, she said.

Parts two and three in Rossen's "Dirty Truth" series will examine the results of germ tests on rental cars and hotel swimming pools and hot tubs.

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? Email us.