How Do Airlines Disinfect Airplanes Today?
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How Do Airlines Disinfect Airplanes Today?

man standing in the aisle of a plane

DALLAS – During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines treated plane cleanliness as a competitive advantage. Many companies went to progressively greater heights to help passengers feel safe about flying during a global health crisis.

How do they disinfect airplanes now, and how does that compare to the early days of the pandemic? 

Photo: Noam Ismaaili/Airways

Social Media Accounts Indicate Subpar Cleaning 

People can’t see germs with the naked eye. However, noticing cleanliness should make them feel more confident about plane disinfection measures. 

A September 2022 article provided a social media roundup of instances where people were rightfully displeased with the overall cleanliness of the planes they flew. Passengers showed photographic evidence of crushed potato chips on the floor and gave accounts of slapping the plane seat and seeing a cloud of white particles rise into the air.

The coverage also mentioned how Southwest and JetBlue airlines no longer disinfect armrests and tray tables between flights, respectively. Both airlines used to do that at earlier stages of the pandemic but have discontinued the practice.  

Brenda Orelus, who has worked as a flight attendant for the past five years, used TikTok to warn people about one area of the plane that’s never thoroughly cleaned. Orelus explained how seat pockets are the dirtiest parts of aircraft. The exceptions would be if someone vomited in them or a gooey substance was left behind for some reason.  

She continued by clarifying that the only way cleaners address the seat pockets is to take the trash out of the compartment. However, that just means germs accumulate on surrounding surfaces. Orelus said other areas, such as lavatories, are disinfected regularly, but that’s not the case with seat pockets. 

Photo: Honeywell

Facts Learned About COVID-19 Have Shifted Priorities 

The earliest days of the pandemic were rough because scientists knew very little about the virus. For example, an initial belief that has since become less prominent concerns the risk of COVID-19-contaminated surfaces. Researchers now know it’s primarily an airborne virus.

The air on planes was cleaner than many people likely expected even before the pandemic, though. That’s because planes typically have high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters installed throughout the cabin. They eliminate more than 99.97% of airborne particles. 

However, there’s no denying that increased knowledge of COVID-19 has changed how airlines handle cleanliness protocols. That’s why many current measures to disinfect airplanes are more high-tech than manually scrubbing surfaces. United Airlines uses UV-light-based disinfection equipment and electrostatic sprayers. Air India utilizes robots that can reach down between rows. 

Avelo Airlines also invested in a disinfecting robot. Its motion-sensing capabilities allow it to move nimbly between rows. Using ultraviolet light for disinfection means the machine can do the job without harsh chemicals. It also boasts emissions-free operation, making the robot a sustainable purchase. 

The UV-Vector Air Robotic Device disinfecting an Air India Express plane.Photo: Air India

Traveling Safely While COVID-19 Remains Present

As COVID-19 vaccines became more readily available through improved distribution, many people began feeling confident about the prospect of traveling. Even so, scientists’ models indicate a growing likelihood of an autumn and winter surge in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Officials have also warned that such a case increase has already begun in Europe. Since COVID-19 spikes there generally happen before those in the United States, the foundation could be set for a situation that possibly disrupts travel plans. 

Many health experts have also mentioned how they expect a rise in respiratory illnesses this year. Some professionals said they’ve even seen patients presenting with more than one simultaneously. 

Given these realities, what can people do to stay as safe as possible if they want to take commercial flights? Passengers can’t disinfect airplanes as thoroughly as professional crews do. However, they can do the next best thing by cleaning their personal space in the aircraft. 

Photo: KLM

Pack Disinfecting Wipes

One of the easiest things to do is bring disinfectant wipes in a carry-on. The seat is a good starting point, but people shouldn’t stop there.

They should wipe down any hard surfaces they’re likely to touch during the flight. That’s because the previous passengers almost certainly did, too. 

Use the Wipes Correctly

It’s not sufficient to wipe down surfaces and then try to dry them. The time frames vary by product, but the area must remain wet long enough to kill the germs. Follow the steps on the package, then discard the wipes after use.

Consider Wearing a Mask

Airlines no longer require passengers to wear masks in the United States. However, people who want to stay as safe as possible should strongly consider doing it anyway. That goes for the time spent in the airport and on the plane. 

Think about how many people eat and drink while waiting to board the plane. Those behaviors could make it easier for infected individuals to spread the virus without knowing they have it. 

Keep Hand Sanitizer Handy

Even if people clean the hard surfaces near their airline seats, they should still use hand sanitizer before eating or touching their faces. Passengers should ensure the bottle meets airline requirements for liquids. 

It’s also ideal if people can bring sanitizer bottles on keychains or similar attachments that make them easy to secure to luggage or a belt loop. 

Be Conscious of Clothing Choices

Some people also recommend wearing a hoodie or turtleneck to protect the area above the shoulders. This could prevent your skin from coming into direct contact with germs if someone behind you coughs or sneezes. 

A related tip is that people should take showers as soon as possible after reaching their destinations. Even though it’s now more established that COVID-19 is less of an issue on surfaces, there’s no harm in taking that extra step to get freshened up after travel. 

Boeing Test and Evaluation, Flight Test, ecoD, eco Demonstrator, 787-10, ZC069, UV Wand. Photo: Boeing

Airlines Disinfect Airplanes, but Passengers Can Take Precautions, Too

The processes to disinfect airplanes changed dramatically at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the procedures shifted yet again as more people became vaccinated and airlines dropped mask mandates. 

However, passengers must do what they think will keep them safest and make them feel the most comfortable. That would likely include some or all of the strategies here, which are particularly useful during winter travel but applicable all year.

Featured image: Lukas Souza via Unsplash

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Emily Newton is a technology journalist. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

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