How clean is that airplane you’re flying in? You don’t have to be a germaphobe to have wondered just that, even before the coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak. Until now, it’s been something of a mystery how airlines manage to sweep up all the used Kleenex and half-eaten sandwiches fliers leave behind and clean up the aircraft in time for the next departure given their tight schedules.
But as demand for air travel falls around the world, many major airlines have decided that a dose of candor is the best defense. They’re giving the flying public more details than they have in the past about how they disinfect their planes between flights—and how they’re going the extra mile to prevent the spread of coronavirus up in the air.
Enhanced measures for cleaning airplanes
United Airlines has stated that it’s cleaning planes in international service with a disinfectant it first used during the Ebola outbreak six years ago. And several carriers that helped evacuate foreign citizens from Wuhan, China, and elsewhere during the initial days of the outbreak, such as Qantas and Korean Air, have divulged the potent solutions they used to debug those planes. Qantas, for instance, said it deploys a hospital-grade disinfectant called Viraclean that nukes a range of bacteria and viruses. Carriers are also quick to assure fliers that these products have been approved by health authorities for use on planes.
Delta Air Lines has issued a statement outlining its “proactive and voluntary steps” to assure travelers, including a high-grade, EPA-registered disinfectant that is used on all flights, a new disinfectant fogging process, providing more hand sanitizer and more gloves for flight attendants, and implementing enhanced sanitation procedures for catering equipment at international gateways.
“All of us have made a lot of changes to our cleaning procedures,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, during a White House briefing on March 4. He said that the routines conducted between flights have been stepped up dramatically, as “we’re intensifying the cleaning of the aircraft.”
The CDC’s new guidelines
Tilden’s statement followed new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on what kind of cleaning techniques airlines should carry out based on what kind of situation they are faced with, such as learning that a sick passenger was aboard a particular flight.
Among other things, the CDC recommends two levels of cleaning, one after a normal flight (which entails following routine procedures), and the other a heightened sanitation drill if an infected passenger has been identified during or after a flight. If it’s the latter, the cleanup crew will focus on the area within six feet of the disease-carrying flier, and thoroughly sanitize all hard and soft surfaces with antiviral solutions, the CDC stated.
To conduct the actual cleaning, airlines typically contract with ground-service providers at individual airports, often the same companies that handle baggage and other on-site tasks. During the day, planes get routine cleanups at the gate, but overnight is when the deep-cleaning drill can take place.
Alaska Airlines, for example, explained that it gives planes a more serious mop-up “when an aircraft is on the ground longer than an hour at our hubs,” a spokesperson told AFAR. She added that “every night, each aircraft is getting a thorough cleaning, including front and back of seats, window shades, handles to carry-on compartments,” and other places where germs can live.
What about long-haul flights?
Dubai-based Emirates, which has a lot of ultra-long-distance operations, has posted videos of gloved workers scrubbing down the insides of its wide-body planes. According to the airline, an expanded crew scours all hard surfaces with industrial or hospital-strength disinfectants, wiping down everything, including tray tables, window shades, lavatory doors, mirrors, air vents, and the flight attendant call buttons. Headrest covers get replaced, carpets get vacuumed, and in extreme cases, the interior of a plane gets sprayed with a disinfectant in a process known as “fogging.” Emirates reported that the amped-up process takes between six and eight hours.
Airlines also point out that transmissions of communicable disease aboard flights is rare, in part due to their air-filtration systems that use HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters similar to those used in hospital operating rooms.
But concerns tend to grow when travelers are faced with the notion of an ill person aboard a long-distance international flight, where passengers might be exposed for prolonged periods—especially if that sick person gets up and walks around the plane, potentially spreading germs to more people onboard. For that reason, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said that “vulnerable people,” including the elderly and those with underlying conditions, should avoid these mileage marathons.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for major airlines that derive a significant percentage of their profits from these lucrative long-haul runs.
Deep cleaning versus airplane turnaround time
Making time for a deep clean is a tough balancing act, according to airline experts. After all, before the coronavirus outbreak threw air travel into a tailspin, airplanes had been packed at record levels. About 2 million people a day boarded a plane in the United States in 2019, and the average domestic flight was more than 84 percent full, according to William McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Inevitably, cleanliness standards suffered.
In recent years, “there have been some concerns about whether the aircraft cleaning was as thorough as it used to be,” he said. “Aircraft are quickly turned around between flights and some are virtually 100 percent full.” Airlines have asked flight attendants to help tidy up, he said, and “some are even asking the passengers to help out.”
Southwest Airlines, for example, has famously asked fliers to straighten up before disembarking, stating that it helps keep pricing low—the carrier’s low-fare formula is based partly on the “15-minute turnaround” (which is now closer to 25 minutes, according to the airline), a process that entails unloading a full plane, picking up the debris, and then boarding another crowd within the short time frame.
However, Southwest has recently taken steps to reassure passengers that the rapid pace of its operations isn’t hampering efforts to step up cleaning. While routine tidying is still the norm during the day, the more than 700 Boeing 737 narrow-body planes in its fleet are now undergoing “more than six labor hours of cleaning every night,” Southwest said in a statement. Technicians enhanced the procedures by switching to an EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant to address human touchpoints throughout the cabin, the cockpit, and the lavatories, the airline said.
Still, since much of this activity takes place out of view of the flying public, some fliers might wonder if planes really are cleaner in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Are airlines just offering up lip service to calm fliers’ nerves? Since you can’t know who was last sitting in your seat, or how long it’s been since the plane was thoroughly scrubbed, it would be wise for passengers to continue to take precautions like wiping down their seats, armrests and tray tables. One thing is certain: airlines don’t want any incidents of coronavirus spread in their aircraft any more than the flying public does. That alone is incentive for them to take enhanced cleaning measures seriously.