Airlines are looking differently at cabin disinfecting

The coronavirus has booted cabin hygiene to near the top of the agenda when it comes to safety, but Alex Sahni has spent the last five years trying to convince airlines that they need to improve their cabin cleanliness standards. Noting the SARS, H1N1 and MERS virus outbreaks, he makes the point that, while COVID-19 is by far the worst case, such events happen more frequently than generally realized.

Sahni is CEO of Turkey-based Virus Guard, which produces a disinfectant incorporated into a medium the company says remains active on cabin surfaces for up to 10 days and kills both bacteria and viruses. With a few exceptions, he had found it difficult to interest airlines. 

Part of the issue is that airlines do not like talking about the topic for fear it implies there is a problem. Another is that cabin disinfection responsibility often falls between different departments, such as engineering, inflight services and ground handling. Thirdly, cabin cleaning is frequently outsourced to the lowest bidder, and cleaners are under pressure to do their job as quickly as possible to meet turnaround times and not delay departures. 

Sahni said the CEO of a major Asian carrier told him it was “too troublesome” to disinfect his fleet of 200-plus aircraft, despite foggers or nebulizers typically requiring only 20-30 minutes to treat an airliner. 

However, interest in Sahni’s product has skyrocketed in recent weeks, with production leaping from five liters a day to 5,000 and airlines phoning him “wanting delivery today.” 

Some carriers have been exemplary in their disinfection procedures, he adds, but he fears others will lapse when the pandemic recedes. 

Dirty floors

For all the attention to cleanliness of airline seats, IFE systems and food trays, one of the most notoriously dirty areas on an aircraft is the carpet, Sahni says. 

People using the restrooms unwittingly track anything from the lavatory floor through the cabin, Rick Lockhart, president of Florida-based Skypaxxx Interior Repairs, notes. His company distributes Sky-Tiles, carpet tiles with a “baked in” anti-microbial component. “You see people in bare feet, clipping their toenails. What goes on the floor of aircraft is pretty disgusting,” he says. 

But like Sahni, he is seeing a big change not just in what airlines are doing about cabin cleaning but also in their willingness to talk about it. 

“On the flight I was on yesterday, before the safety presentation the flight attendant was talking about what they are doing to keep the aircraft clean, the HEPA filters, etc. There’s going to have to be a big public relations push, commercials on television, about what they are doing to keep the aircraft clean once things start to open up again,” Lockhart says.

Some airlines, including Etihad Airways, have already started producing videos detailing their disinfection procedures as a confidence-boosting measure. 

Others, including some smaller operators like Turkey’s Freebird Airlines, have also seen the importance of thorough cleaning of cabins, Sahni says. A senior Freebird official told him: “Alex, we want to firstly protect our employees, secondly protect our passengers, and thirdly we want to protect our reputation.”

For its part, IATA has set up a new section on its website advising airlines on the best ways to keep cabins clean. All disinfection products used must not degrade cabin materials, for example. IATA also cites advice from EASA regarding cabin cleaning. EASA has developed and issued a safety information bulletin to provide operational recommendations for European stakeholders.

In March, EASA issued two safety directives (SD), one for EASA member states and the other for third-country operators operating commercial air services into the European Union. The SDs mandate the disinfection of aircraft after each flight arriving from high-risk areas to protect passengers from secondary contamination. EASA noted a possible complication in such procedures, in that “certain cleaning and disinfecting substances recommended by aircraft manufacturers may be approved in some states but not in all EU member states.” 

Even after the coronavirus crisis has passed, Skypaxxx’s Lockhart believes there will be far more attention paid to items that were previously ignored. 

“Airlines can talk all about fogging and wiping, but if you get on an aircraft and you see gum ground into the carpet, you’re going to assume the aircraft is dirty,” he said.

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.