ATLANTA – The global pandemic has created unprecedented challenges within the airline industry. Among them are ensuring aircraft are properly sanitized, and convincing travelers flying will be safe. As COVID-19 cases continue to trend high in the United States, US carriers are in fierce competition to roll out cleanliness innovations.

While all carriers have taken steps to create a safe environment for their passengers, the five largest US-based airlines* will be subject to review. They are as follows:

  • American Airlines (AA)
  • Delta Air Lines (DL)
  • Southwest Airlines (SW)
  • United Airlines (UA)
  • Alaska Airlines (AS)

*Based on number of enplaned passengers in 2019.


Cleaning onboard American Airlines aircraft. PHOTO: American Airlines

The American Airlines Clean Commitment


American Airlines’ “Clean Commitment” is highlighted by its partnership with Allied BioScience, and the use of an industry-leading electrostatic spray, SurfaceWise2. According to an Allied Bioscience press release, SurfaceWise2 is the “first antiviral surface coating approved by EPA to continuously protect against COVID-19 with a single application”. Even the in-flight magazine, American Way, is printed on anti-microbial paper.

American also enforces a strict facing covering policy, inclusive of employees and customers. The only exemption applies to travelers under the age of two. To ensure clean air on board, all aircraft, except the Embraer E140 and E145, feature government-approved HEPA filtration.

While AA has an extensive cleanliness policy, it is continuing to book middle seats. This has sparked massive debate amongst industry professionals, and criticism within the US congress. AA has not let up on this policy despite many competitors opting to block the middle seat, even through next year.

Hand sanitizing station onboard Delta aircraft. PHOTO: Delta News Hub

Delta CareStandard


Delta Air Line’s “CareStandard” emphasizes cleanliness “from the moment you check-in for your flight until you collect your bag at your destination.” Taking a two-prong approach to electrostatic spray, DL has committed to sanitizing the aircraft cabin at every turn, also doing so for high-touch airport locations.

Delta has become the first US airline to feature onboard hand-sanitizing stations throughout the cabin of all aircraft. There will be up to five stations, depending on aircraft size. A facial covering policy has also been heavily enforced, as CEO ED Bastian announced passengers have even been blacklisted because of their failure to wear a mask.

The airline has altered boarding and seating procedures as well. Through January 6, 2020, all middle seats on DL flights will be blocked out. Flights are also boarded from back to front to allow for social distancing when possible.

Cleaning on Southwest aircraft. Video: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Promise


Southwest Airlines’ “Promise” adheres to the carrier’s customer-friendly business model. Like other carriers, approved facial coverings are required on board. However, on SW, facial coverings are provided to passengers who do not have one. Passengers on board also have access to sanitization wipes, upon special request.

Electrostatic cleaning methods are not used between every flight, which differs from other carriers. Instead, SW claims that all aircraft are sprayed in the hangars, and the product being used “forms a protective shield for 30 days.”

Southwest has also made alterations to its boarding procedures. While open seating remains, passenger numbers for each flight have been reduced to allow for the middle seat to be empty when necessary. Travelers who, for example, live in the same household will still be able to sit together.

United Airlines onboard cleaning procedures

United CleanPlus


United Airlines’ “CleanPlus” focuses on the avoidance of touchpoints throughout the pre-flight experience. Customers who are traveling with bags can utilize the touch-less check-in process, available at select airports. At the gate, passengers have the ability to self-scan their boarding passes.

Following in line with other carriers, UA has also begun boarding all aircraft from back to front. Deplaning will occur in groups of five rows at a time, a procedure not emphasized by other airlines. Facial coverings are also required throughout all areas of the airport and for the full duration of the flight.

Additionally, UA has partnered with Clorox to provide an electrostatic spray of the cabin before every flight. As of August 6, UA has taken a step further with the use of Ultraviolet-C (UVC) light on all sensitive electronics, such as touchscreen displays. UVC light has been proven effective against COVID-19, according to the FDA.

Alaska Airlines flight attendant holding safety card. PHOTO: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Next-Level Care


Alaska Airlines’ “Next-Level Care” is a fair, yet effective, take on passenger safety. While all other carriers have enacted facial covering policies, AS is upfront about the result of failing to comply with its policy.

Passengers who “repeatedly remove or refuse to wear a mask or face covering will be given a final warning—in the form of a yellow card. With a yellow card warning, the guest’s travel with AS will be suspended immediately upon landing.” AS also states the right to refuse service if a guest fails to wear a mask inside the airport areas.

Aircraft capacity has also been reduced to allow for middle seats to be open. This is similar to the SW procedure, but with assigned seats. This allows families to be seated together, and away from other groups at the discretion of ticket agents. Additionally, all aircraft are boarded back to front.

Finally, AS has partnered with the University of Washington to exceed CDC cleanliness guidelines. AS aircraft are sanitized before every flight with electrostatic spray and high-grade EPA disinfectant. AS takes this one step further, with an additional Crew member auditing the procedure and signing off on a cleanliness certificate.

person with toy airplane on world map
US Airlines. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Cleanliness Standards Comparison

Below is a chart summarizing the main features of cleanliness policies across the five largest U.S. based carriers.


Final Thoughts

Airlines will continue to innovate in whatever way necessary to protect revenue streams. In 2020, cleanliness and safety innovations have taken center stage.

Moving beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hopeful to see that airlines will continue adhering to strict cleanliness procedures for the betterment of their products.


Featured Image: American and United aircraft on runway. Photo: EX-YU Aviation News.