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.
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.
The CDC’s new guidelines
A new guidance stated 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.
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.
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.