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Aviation hygiene standards & cleaning procedures

AN aviation service provider

Aviation hygiene standards & cleaning procedures are enhanced; where they clean, how frequently, and with which tools?! This is what the new processes look like. The new key standard for airlines and passengers is: “How clean is it?”

The airlines are busily enhancing their cleaning procedures; where they clean, how frequently, and with which tools. To get a sense of what’s changed, recently witnessed the disinfection and cleaning process performed from start to finish on board a jet.

Briefly, it was meticulous enough to delight even a hardened germophobe. Here’s what passengers need to know about how an airplane gets cleaned and disinfected between flights.

How was the plane cleaned?

When Passengers get disembarked from a 76-seat regional jet that had arrived. A crew of cleaners made quick and efficient work of the airplane.

A worker passed through the cabin to open the overhead bins and each tray table on the aircraft. The window shades were opened halfway, which allows for a disinfectant to stick to both the window and the shade.

Next, a single worker passed through, equipped with a backpack filled with disinfectant and a spray nozzle that looked like a Super Soaker water gun, called an electrostatic sprayer. He sprayed a fine mist, slowly moving from the lavatories at the back of the cabin to the front.

For his protection, the worker wore a plastic face shield and a face mask. Every passenger seat, sidewall, overhead air vent, and bin were fogged with a fine mist. It took about 10 minutes from tip to tail.

The rest of the cleaning crew waited on the air bridge while the plane was fogged, wearing face masks. Once fogging was completed, the cleaners boarded and got to work. One was charged with scrubbing the forward galley and two were sent to the rear lavatory.

The rest of the crew began wiping down the seats, seat backs, tray tables, armrests, and sides of the seats, using hand-held spray bottles filled with the same disinfectant as was used in the fogger. One cleaner wiped down the inside of the overhead bins.

At the rear of the plane, the lavatory was wiped down several times with disinfectant-soaked wipes; similar to heavily soaked Lysol wipes.

The regional jet had very little in the way of passenger garbage as there is no onboard food and drink service offered on short flights like this one.

If needed, the floors are vacuumed. (This one wasn’t.) If a plane sits for longer than eight hours – typically a long-haul jet – then the airline will perform a deep clean. During a deep clean, every seat cushion is removed, the seats are vacuumed and the carpet is shampooed throughout the cabin.

How frequently are aircraft cleaned or disinfected?

It varies by airline, but planes are being cleaned more frequently now than before the pandemic.

Commercial aircraft generally fly either short to medium distances many times per day, or long-haul flights less frequently. The time between landing and departing is called a “turn”. Regional aircraft are on the ground for about 90 minutes, and larger aircraft for about two hours. Other airlines have much quicker turns.

Every aircraft is disinfected and cleaned after each flight, according to the airline. The process takes about 15 minutes, carved out from the time the plane was already on the ground.

What is fogging and how does it work?

Fogging is a common term for electrostatic spraying. The technique has been used for decades to paint automobiles and in agricultural spraying. However, applying disinfectant with electrostatic sprayers is relatively new; NYU Langone Medical Center said it began using the technology in 2018, for example.

Unlike with a spray bottle, the nozzle imparts a positive charge to droplets of disinfectant, every 85 microns in size roughly the thickness of an average human hair. The electrical charge causes the individual droplets to repel against each other and spread out over a wide area.

Simultaneously, the droplets are attracted to negatively (or neutrally) charged nonporous surfaces, such as an airplane seat or sidewalls.

“It’s a little bit like rubbing a balloon on your hair, then sticking the balloon to the wall. Every single molecule leaving that nozzle is charged. They are attracted to surfaces like a magnet,” said Joshua Robertson, the chief executive of EMist.

Why is fogging effectively?

The charged disinfectant molecules get everywhere that a spray bottle and rag cannot. “It’s a comprehensive coat,” Mr. Robertson said. “Electrostatic spraying simplifies the disinfecting process and mitigates human error. It gives the workers better tools to do their job better and lets the chemical do its job.”

Said Mr. Robertson: “We’ve been applying disinfectant for over a hundred years, dunking a cloth in the solution and wiping. This is the 21st-century equivalent with better chemicals, applied faster and more efficiently.”

Does the fogging leave a residue?

At first, yes. But within two minutes of dwell time – the time the chemical sits on a surface undisturbed – the disinfectant had mostly dried. The little residue that rested on the surfaces was subsequently wiped down by the cleaning crew. By the time you board, the disinfectant will have dried and killed 99.9999 % of any pathogens.

Hygiene Safety Rating for the aviation industry

As the world moves forward in tackling the global pandemic, it is critical for the aviation industry to ensure that all lessons learned to improve cleanliness and hygiene standards are maintained and that these enhanced levels remain an item of continuous improvement and development. A trust in cleanliness and safety will remain a foremost concern for customers as air travel continues to build back to pre-pandemic demand levels.

In 2020/2021 there was a fairly uniform, global approach to COVID-19 health and hygiene precautions across the aviation industry, but moving into 2022 starting to see a relaxation of some policies by both airports and airlines, and as countries long for some return to a more “normal” way of life post-COVID-19, it is important for the focus on hygiene issues to remain at the forefront of operational efficiency.

Aircraft Cleaning Standards

Aircraft cleaning standards are regulatory requirements that civil aviation authorities (CAA) impose on the airline operators to ensure the minimum level of cleanliness onboard.

The purpose of cleaning standards in commercial aircraft is to ensure the health and safety of passengers and crew.

World Health Organization (WHO) on Aircraft Cleaning Standards

Health and sanitation aspects of international traffic have been of concern to the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1951, when the Fourth World Health Assembly recommended that all governments should “improve sanitary and environmental conditions, especially in and around ports and airports”; at the same time, the need for “the sanitary protection of populations in mass movement” was also expressed.

Subsequent resolutions of both the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board emphasized the importance of maintaining high standards of hygiene and sanitation in international traffic (particularly in relation to the provision of safe water and food and the correct procedures for the collection and disposal of wastes).

The annex to the first report of the WHO Expert Committee on Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation (WHO, 1960a) was published in 1960 as a Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation (WHO, 1960b).

Its use was recommended by the Twelfth World Health Assembly to guide health administrations in “fulfilling their obligations under the existing International Sanitary Regulations, especially the provisions of Article 14, in providing safe food for international air traffic, and in maintaining satisfactory control of, and protection from, malaria vectors at airports”.

The reports of the Committee on International Surveillance of Communicable Diseases, as adopted by the World Health Assembly, also emphasized the importance of preventing disease through the improvement of sanitary conditions.

The relevant articles of the International Health Regulations (1969) (WHO, 1969) laid down sanitation requirements at airports. The provision of criteria and guidelines for the use of administrations in fulfilling their obligations under the International Health Regulations forms an essential part of WHO’s functions.

In 1974, the Twenty-seventh World Health Assembly, “believing that, in view of the growth of international traffic, continuous attention should be given to the safety of food and water and the handling of wastes in such traffic”, stressed “the need for each Member State to clarify the ultimate responsibility for the safety of food and water and the proper handling of wastes in international traffic” and, furthermore, recommended that “Member States coordinate and ensure the close and active participation in such a responsibility of health authorities, port and airport management, aircraft operators, shipping companies, tourist associations, and any other service or agency concerned with international traffic” (resolution WHA27.46).

At the same time, the Director-General of WHO was requested to maintain close contact with representatives of international organizations concerned with international traffic with a view to promoting the implementation and coordination of activities goal is improving the safety of food and water and the handling of waste and to prepare appropriate guidance for the use of health professionals. The outcome of these activities was the publication of a second edition of the Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation, in 1977 (WHO, 1977).

The basic principles of hygiene have not changed significantly since 1977; however, the magnitude of air transport operations has grown tremendously. The number of passengers flying on scheduled airlines rose from 438 million in 1975 to over 2 billion in 2006 (ICAO, 2006), figures that do not take into account charter flight passengers and global corporation business jet passengers, whose numbers are in the millions and increasing every year.

Furthermore, the current trend in international civil aviation is towards aircraft of larger passenger-carrying capacity and greater range. The introduction of air services to areas with inadequate public health infrastructures, such as food handling and storage, water supply, and waste disposal, creates a challenge for aircraft operators. To protect public health, the application of high standards of hygiene should form an integral part of airport and aircraft operations.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

The third edition of the Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation addresses water, food, waste disposal, cleaning and disinfection of facilities, vector control, and cargo safety, with the ultimate goal of assisting all types of airport and aircraft operators and all other responsible bodies in achieving high standards of hygiene and sanitation, to protect travelers and crews engaged in air transport.

Each topic is addressed individually, with guidelines that provide procedures and quality specifications that are to be achieved.

Airlines are responsible for the food they serve onboard aircraft, whether it is prepared in an airline-owned “flight kitchen” or obtained from an independently owned catering company.

The steps involved include food preparation, transport to the aircraft, storage, and, finally, serving on the aircraft needs to be well-coordinated in order to avoid contamination.

Routine cleaning and disinfection are also important aspects of aircraft and airport operations. In addition, aircraft disinfection procedures following transport of a suspected case of communicable disease are a particularly difficult issue that needs to be addressed by many stakeholders in a cooperative approach; not all effective disinfectants are suitable for use onboard aircraft, as they may cause corrosion or other damage to the aircraft structure and contents, or their fumes may be noxious to inhale in an unventilated space.

WHO, IATA, aircraft manufacturers, and ICAO are the main organizations involved in determining a suitable disinfection process at the international level.

International Organizations for Aircraft Cleaning Standards

In addition to the responsibilities of the individual stakeholders (aircraft and airport operators, ground service providers, etc.), several international bodies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the Airports Council International (ACI), play an important role in protecting the health of passengers and crew.

The COVID-19 Safety Audit investigates and evaluates over 190 safety and hygiene protocols introduced by airlines during COVID-19 to enhance customer and staff safety, including standards of social distancing, the efficacy of cleaning systems across both the airport and onboard environments, and all associated measures to enhance hygiene protection (eg. face mask usage, service systems in the airport and onboard flights).