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How clean are planes these days? A look at how top U.S. airlines are sanitizing their carriers

Learn all about fogging cabins.

Written by
Anna Rahmanan
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Although we've all been focusing on timelines—when will be able to travel again? When are restaurants opening? When can we head back to our neighborhood gym?—let us turn our collective attention to the precautionary measures that will actually allow the United States to progressively open back up once more. Namely, how are businesses actually sanitizing their spaces to allow us to frequent them again?

When it comes to planes and the nature of travel (tight quarters, extended amount of time spent in said quarters, number of people usually flying on a standard plane), the concern over cleaning procedures is a perennial ones, even during non-coronavirus laden times. 

As a general statement, vessels are cleaned in-between each departure following a process that includes wipe-downs of all surfaces using a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved disinfectant, the throwing out of trash, the vacuuming and changing of utilized linens.

Even deeper disinfecting is reserved for planes used for longer flights. Some carriers even remove aircrafts "from flight rotations for a thorough detailed clean," according to Conde Nast Traveler.  

In light of such an easily spreadable virus that has attacked the entire world, airlines are amping up their cleaning procedures by building up on their pre-established routines. To aid the industry, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have released a new set of guidelines, which you can find right here.

The outlined process introduces the concept of aircraft fogging, which involves spraying a high-grade disinfectant through a fog machine across every single surface following any flight. The machine aerosolizes the cleaning product (that basically means that it turns it into gas) so that it can reach all surfaces—including bathrooms, trays, ceilings, seats and carts—but also disinfect the air.

On its website, Delta explains that it's been using the technique since February on all trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic flights landing in the United States. Starting this month, the carrier plans on utilizing the procedure on its entire fleet of carriers, fogging each one before each departure.

Interactions with in-flight crew members are also being scrutinized on multiple levels. Across most airlines, attendants are required to wear masks and medical-grade gloves while cutlery and dishes are being sanitized before each wash on United Flights and international Delta and American Airlines trips. Galley carts handled by the are also sanitized, as are linens and headphones from inbound flights. Unused supplies are actually being thrown out. United Airlines also revealed that it provides passengers with new cups for each refill instead of pouring liquids into previously distributed ones.  

The systems in place also move beyond concerns about actual surfaces and contacts between people on board, focusing on the actual air that circulates on each plane. Even before these unprecedented months turned our attention towards all sorts of modes of cleanliness, almost all U.S. airlines invested in High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which, according to American Airlines, "provide a complete air change approximately 15 to 30 times per hours, or once every two to four minutes."

In an official statement, Alaska Airlines' senior vice president of maintenance and engineering Constance von Muehlen echoed the importance of the air filtering system and its reliability in times of crisis as well: "It's not a self-contained tube with the same air for a six-hour flight," she said about aircrafts. "In fact, there's a large portion of air that comes directly from outside. Within a three-minute period you get completely new air in the entire cabin."

Just in case you needed extra confirmation, we should note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also explains that "most viruses and other germs do not spread that easily" through the air. 

Not that we had any doubt, but we must say we're impressed with the slate of precautions that our beloved airlines have been taking recently. Which is all to say: although we're still under stay-at-home orders, we can't wait to be able to—safely—fly across the world once again.

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