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New Harvard Public Health bulletin says airline sanitation procedures are effective

Travelers still have to do their part with hand-washing, masks, and social distancing

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Airlines have been working the sanitation angle for months to try to get travelers to believe that air travel is safe during the pandemic. While some travelers have held onto some of their doubts, a technical bulletin from the faculty at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health might be able to change that perception.

The bulletin -- “Air Cabin Cleaning and Disinfection” -- says that the disinfecting and ventilation efforts that carriers such as Southwest, Delta, United, American, and others have made are effective “when administered properly…on surfaces.” 

Focusing on high-risk areas

Sanitization and ventilation initiatives aren’t an end-all or be-all by themselves, but Harvard officials said that coupling them with individual risk reduction like frequent hand-washing, use of sanitizers, and wearing masks works as a multi-layered strategy that, “taken together, offer(s) significant protection against respiratory infections including COVID-19.”

Nonetheless, the bulletin doesn’t discount the fact that COVID-19 can be transmitted from person-to-person via respiratory particles in a normal setting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says these droplets have the potential to hang in the air for hours.

In trying to separate particles that would stay on surfaces at home or in the workplace from those on a plane, the report says that aircraft lavatories are the most problematic areas because they’re high-frequency touch areas and touched by the greatest number of people.

In comments about the study, Delta Air Lines said that it is already on the case. 

“While in the air, flight attendants regularly make sure lavatories are clean, tidy, fully stocked with supplies and ready for customers,” the airline noted. It also said it’s in the early stages of installing hand sanitizer stations near the boarding portal and the lavatory.

While all airlines that ConsumerAffairs has tracked during the pandemic have some type of systematic cleaning in place, only Delta appears to be cleaning lavatories during a flight. 

Southwest, United, and American do not specifically list in-flight lavatory cleaning as a sanitary measure, but a New York Times report says that Southwest “deep cleans” its aircraft for 6-7 hours every night. The publication also notes that United deploys electrostatic spraying before “most flights.” Airlines tend to replicate nuances that their competitors do, so it’s possible that others will follow in Delta’s footsteps.

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