When you fly frequently, you will soon come to believe that the inside of an airplane may be one of the most disgusting places on (or, rather, off of) earth. And by “frequently,” we mean even just one time. That will likely convince you, particularly if you attempted a mid-air restroom break on a full flight. But now, one airline has broken that stereotype.
How Can This Not Be Terrible?
Before we get to that one airline, let’s ponder the situation. “How can this not be terrible?” I’m wondering this as I sit – nay, cower – in my window seat, watching my fellow passengers much like Howie Mandell must watch people in a restaurant. (Does Howie Mandell even go to restaurants?) I’m thinking that hundreds, maybe thousands of people shuffle onto, through, and off of this airplane every single day. Who knows where those feet have been? For all I know, that guy in 21F could have stepped in dog doo this morning. That lady just spilled her $8 Venti Latte on the floor, and that milk is going to sour before long. That snot-nosed kid across the aisle? Pretty sure that’s not ending up in a tissue. (shudder) And air sickness…those bags must be here for a reason, and I wonder how many people don’t get to one in time.
At the same time, I wonder just what the cleaning routine for your average airplane is. Crews have little time – what, 30 minutes maybe? – between flights to clean up before the next filthy horde boards. I understand planes get a deep clean overnight but, judging from what I’ve seen on early-morning flights, I can’t help but wonder just how deep that clean is.
But maybe, just maybe, I’m hyperventilating for nothing. Maybe things are looking up. Or, at least, looking cleaner.
Coming Clean in the Age of COVID
Perhaps the only good result of the global Coronavirus Pandemic is a renewed, and intense, focus on cleanliness. We are washing our hands more than ever, and wiping down everything in sight. This is particularly true on the part of industries that rely on consumer trust. Like, for example, airlines.
The flying public has debated for years just how safe we are, even from simple rhinoviruses, when we’re cooped up in a closed environment with recycled air for hours. If that needs to change to get us to fly during and after the pandemic, you can bet it will change.
Well, it turns out that airlines actually have some pretty impressive filters for cabin air, and it’s not the same air going round-and-round in the cabin. But what about cleaning? Isn’t that where there was a lot of room for improvement, especially when we thought the Coronavirus could happily hang out on almost any surface we touch for hours, maybe days? Well, yes. And that’s where airlines have really stepped up.
In response to the pandemic, airlines have been leaders in the use of electrostatic cleaners, spraying anti-viral solutions throughout the cabin to sanitize surfaces. In fact, it became part of Delta CareStandard after the airline began using electrostatic cleaners as early as February 2020.
Since then, airlines have reinvented their cleaning routines, deprioritizing turn-around times in favor of cleanliness. At most airlines, every surface is touched – in a good way. Crews wipe down trays, armrests, and even overhead bins. Lavatories and galleys have dedicated cleaning teams. Floors are vacuumed mercilessly.
The War on Dirty
So who is winning this war? United.
In January, United Airlines became the first U. S. airline to receive a hospital-grade cleanliness certification from the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and SimpliFlying. The new APEX Health Safety audit, powered by SimpliFlying, is a science-based certification designed to create a recognized, global standard for health and safety across the industry.
Not only was United Airlines the first American airline to be certified, the legacy carrier earned the highest possible certification: Diamond. They did so by partnering with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to develop their United CleanPlus program.
To be certified, airlines go through an audit by SimpliFlying, with a 58-point checklist. There are ten categories in the audit, including testing, contact tracing, on-the-ground procedures, in-flight measures, and strategic partnerships.
Staying Safe Beyond Cleaning
While cleanliness may be next to godliness, it’s a far cry from a hard stop in the spread of Coronavirus. We are still, to some degree, at risk from our fellow passengers. Yes, we mean those who defy mask rules. You can argue all you want – except with the flight crew; that’s a federal offense – but there is growing proof that masks are effective in keeping every flight from being a super-spreader event.
Consider: infectious disease doctor David O. Freedman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and his colleagues, have been monitoring Emirates Airlines, which has a very strong and well-enforced mask policy on all flights. In the Journal of Travel Medicine, the team looked at all Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong between June 16 and July 5. In that time, there were five flights with a total of 58 coronavirus-positive passengers. Guess how many of their fellow passengers got sick. Zero. Zilch. Zed. Not one of the other 1,500 to 2,000 passengers picked up the virus.
“Mask up,” is what we’re saying. That, and maybe consider flying United. We are as ready to travel again as anyone, and those seems to be key terms for doing it safely.