Airlines Struggling With Proper Cleaning Procedures For COVID-19

OEMs are issuing guidance on flight deck cleaning best practices.
Credit: JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images

A renewed focus on cleaning aircraft interiors has operators paying close attention to what works as a disinfectant and, critically, what is permitted for use on different surfaces. Reports from the front lines suggest significant confusion and, in several cases, airworthiness issues.

A pilot for an unnamed airline filed a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System report in mid-May detailing an onboard smoke event. “[An] air carrier captain reported smelling a burning smell during cruise,” the report’s summary says. “Post-flight maintenance briefing advised the pilots that alcohol from wipes may be shorting out wires.” The unnamed airline reported that the issue had turned up on “several” aircraft.

Aircraft manufacturers have published procedures on how to clean aircraft and what products to use for years. Events such as SARS and the current COVID-19 pandemic have prompted them to issue reminders and, as lessons are learned, provide updates. For example, Boeing has issued several multi-operator messages since the beginning of the year linked to aircraft cleaning. The OEM’s lists include products that are approved for use and are verified by government health agencies as being effective against the prevailing threat, currently the virus that causes COVID-19.

But some operators are still struggling to follow procedures. An Air Line Pilots Association report issued in mid-May cited reports of noncompliance at 16 U.S. carriers and one in Canada. Most of the issues concern the frequency and thoroughness of aircraft-interior disinfecting and the materials being used. A common example is pilots being provided with hand wipes that are not on the Environmental Protection Agency’s E-list, which tracks products known to work against the novel coronavirus.

The FAA and other regulators are hesitant to mandate aircraft-cleaning protocols, referring instead to health agency guidance, which focuses largely on aircraft cabins. Instructions on cleaning flight decks, such as in the International Civil Aviation Organization guidance on protecting cargo pilots issued May 11, refer to manufacturers’ recommendations.

While the guidance is not new, OEMs say they will work to make it more readily available. An early item on a new Boeing initiative’s to-do list is reaffirming which cleaners and materials are approved for different aircraft surfaces, says Mike Delaney, who is heading up the just-launched Confident Travel Initiative. Boeing says it will push to harmonize recommended product lists as much as possible among manufacturers. The goal, says Delaney, is to give operators choice while ensuring they do not have to stock multiple brands of the same general products to do the same job on different manufacturers’ aircraft.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.