Germ Airways, You’re Cleared for Takeoff: The U.S. Airports Most Likely to Spread Pandemics

When people travel by plane, even solo flyers are never really alone: hitching a ride are millions of germs that could potentially spread a number of serious and even lethal illnesses.

How airport travel factors into the spread of pandemics is the focus of a study released recently in the journal PLoS One. Using a new statistical model and network theory, MIT researchers ranked U.S. airports in terms of how they might play a role in the first 15 days of disease spread. New York’s Kennedy International Airport ranked number one, followed by Los Angeles International and Honolulu International.

Air traffic wasn’t the only component that factored into the ratings. Connectivity, traffic and geography were the three key elements that gave the airports their standings as contagion hot spots. Also factored into the equation were airport waiting times.

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Honolulu, for example, pales in comparison traffic-wise to JFK, with only 30 percent as much air traffic as the New York hub. But because it’s smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean it has proximity to Asia, Australia and the U.S. Other super-spreaders included San Francisco, Newark Liberty and Chicago O’Hare. Louisville International Airport in Kentucky ranked last.

In establishing individual travel patterns, researchers looked at cellphone data on how humans move, and how fluids flow through in subsurface rock. Rather than consider travel a random thing, they theorized that airplane passengers create patterns that can be reproduced.

“The findings could form the basis for an initial evaluation of vaccine allocation strategies in the event of an outbreak,” said co-author Ruben Juanes in a news release, “and could inform national security agencies of the most vulnerable pathways for biological attacks in a densely connected world.”

How does this information change the way you feel about flying? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine |