Airlines hope proven cleaning techniques will bring passengers back to flying


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – COVID-19 has changed the way we do many things and that includes the way we fly.

One airline, United, tries to make sure passengers are safe to fly before they ever step on board a plane.

Before people are allowed on the aircraft, they have to fill out a ready-to-fly checklist which includes medical questions to insure they are safe to travel.

First time flyer Wesley Autry said he’s hoping “it will to be very safe and protected,” when he flies and that, “everyone is in good health before they fly.”

CBS 17 consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia was granted special behind-the-scenes access at United’s terminal at RDU International Airport to see how they get aircraft ready for flights.

When an aircraft like a 737 lands at the airport, it must be prepped for turnaround both mechanically and hygienically.

That means every touchpoint in the aircraft has to be sanitized in several different ways starting with disinfectant wipe downs.

Once that’s completed, there’s electrostatic spraying of the cabin.

That multi-layered approach follows medical guidance.

“Early on in the pandemic, we partnered with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic using medical professionals to verify our standards are effective,” said United Airlines station manager Rodney Russell.

Because cockpits contain delicate electronics and controls, they are sanitized differently from the passenger cabin – using ultra-violet lights.

The extra cleaning protocols aboard the aircraft does slow down the turnaround time, but customers said worth it to make sure the aircraft is free of coronavirus.

When the plane is in flight, is is giving passengers a 50/50 mix of outside air and filtered cabin air to breathe.

These days, a HEPA filter is used in aircraft to filter the air. That air is recirculated two or three times a minute from ceiling vent to floor.

How effective are those filters?

A study conducted by the military’s U.S. Transportation Command says HEPA filters remove 99.99 percent of aerosol particles cabin-wide.

Those filters are located in the cargo hold aircraft and replaced a minimum of once a month.

“They’re in full HAZMAT suits when they change them out at our maintenance facilities,” said Russell.

For air travelers though, there’s still some lingering worries.

“It concerns me a little but, I think you have to protect yourself the best way you can,” said Christen Donovan.

Various studies conducted since the pandemic began show you and the aircraft itself can help reduce the chance of infection.

A Harvard study found wearing a mask in an airplane reduces the risk of infection from respiratory particles to less than 1 percent.

A joint Boeing/University of Arizona study found that forward-facing seats create a barrier to transmission.

A NASA study found filters capture particles 10,000 times smaller than COVID-19.

Some airlines limit capacity to allow for social distancing while others are moving away from that policy.

United doesn’t limit flight capacity, but does offer customers a chance to avoid flying on a full plane.

“We advise the customer if their flight is expected to be more than 80 percent full and give them the opportunity to rebook at no charge to a flight later that may not be as full,” said Russell.

Because of the pandemic, airlines overall are seeing holiday travel demand down by more than half compared to 2019, so they’re offering very low ticket fares to bring customers back.

They’re also hoping the combination of publicizing their cleaning techniques and studies that show the chance of catching COVID-19 on an airplane is essentially zero will help alleviate 2020’s fear of flying.

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