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Disinfecting Aircraft Evolves in the COVID Era

Prior to the worldwide COVID-19 crisis, aircraft cleaning products and techniques often focused on aesthetics – keeping leather seats supple, wood polished and the entire interior of the cabin beautiful for passengers. COVID-19 has changed the industry’s goals in aircraft cleaning in efforts to mitigate the easy transmission of the virus.

Experts say the lack of information available at the beginning of the pandemic, along with the sometimes conflicting information published since, has led to confusion about how to properly clean and disinfect an aircraft.

Some of the initial materials and techniques used to disinfect aircraft caused damage to seat materials or seatbelt buckle plating. Fogging with some chemicals led to yellowing or discoloration of the interior. Overzealous passengers, who sometimes brought their own cleaning products aboard, unknowingly damaged the aircraft cabin.

“It was a moving target at the beginning,” said Greg Hamelink, senior manager of flight operations and maintenance at Stryker and chair of the NBAA Maintenance Committee. “Initially there were knee-jerk reactions, but now we know we’re mostly talking about the virus spreading through person-to-person airborne contact.”

Recently, the FAA published Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) NM-20-17, “Aircraft Interior Disinfection,” which highlights the potential danger of using some aircraft cleaners. The publication says that although some disinfectants might be effective at combating COVID-19, many products may not be “suitable for use on aircraft, except in very limited and localized application.” Corrosion, embrittlement, increased flammability and electrical short-circuits are among the concerns listed.

How can you be sure the product you use to disinfect the interior and cockpit, including avionics, are both effective against viruses and safe for the interior? Hamelink recommends reviewing aircraft manufacturer guidance prior to using a cleaning product on your aircraft.

“You need to protect your passengers and crewmembers, but you also have to sanitize and disinfect the aircraft without damaging it.”

Greg Hamelink Senior Manager of Flight Operations and Maintenance, Stryker

“You need to protect your passengers and crewmembers, but you also have to sanitize and disinfect the aircraft without damaging it,” said Hamelink. “Verify the products you consider using are safe for the interior and equipment by checking your aircraft manufacturer’s guidance.”

In many cases, a simple 70% alcohol solution on hard surfaces and light soap and water on soft surfaces is sufficient to clean an aircraft. A more consistent cleaning schedule with safe products – after each flight or between each group of passengers – may be more appropriate and effective than using harsh chemicals.

NBAA provides a number of resources, including cleaning guidance and webinars, to help operators choose the appropriate products. However, Stewart D’Leon, NBAA’s director of technical operations, says operators need to choose products that are right for their aircraft and the risks associated with their specific operation.

The risk of virus transmissions varies from one operator’s mission to another. For example, an air medical operator transporting COVID-19 patients has a higher risk of transmission than the typical operator. A charter operator, with each flight potentially carrying passengers from different households or groups, might have a higher risk of transmission than a business aircraft that regularly carries a small, core group of the same passengers.

“Do your research and assess your own risk,” recommended D’Leon. “Regardless of your level of risk, be sure the product doesn’t cause more harm than good. And, most importantly, use safe products consistently to properly mitigate your risk.”

Download NBAA’s Aircraft Disinfection and Cleaning Procedures Resource (PDF)

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