Tag Archives: aircraft

How to catch a plane without catching a bug

Cabin attendant
Welcome aboard our germ-free flight, no norovirus please!

Ready for take-off?

Ready for this year’s bout of norovirus, or whatever it is you’re in for?

Happens every year, right?

Bugs on a plane. Every passenger’s holiday nightmare. Cabin crew too.

And it keeps happening. However much the airlines say they decontaminate their planes.

Everybody’s sick of it

Sure, on short-hauls – from here to the Med and back – there’s not much time for more than a lick and a promise. A quick wipe-down maybe, empty the toilets, grab all the rubbish out of the gangway.

Sometimes not even that. Come and gone in under twenty minutes. So on-board germs get a return trip. Twice as many people to infect. Victims of time-table urgency.

Back at home base though, every aircraft is supposed to get a thorough deep clean. Nose to tail scrub-out “with sodium hypochlorite diluted to a strength of 100mg/l and a 5% solution of formalin, which is itself a 40% solution of formaldehyde gas in water” exactly per the official World Health Organisation cleaning of aircraft guide.

Wipe-down procedures are laid in detail in this impressive manual. Yet still people keep coming down with bugs – cabin crew particularly, exposed to it more often.

What’s wrong?

Are airlines skimping on the job, or are these procedures simply not good enough?

From the looks of it, a bit of both. So if your airline is cutting corners, good luck to you.

But what about how it’s done?

Check out this short clip of cleaning under the seats.

It might look the business, but remember, space is really tight when you’re a passenger, so a lot of stuff winds up under the seats – shoes, bags, snacks, food debris from inflight meals, magazines, nappies, inflight blanket – you name it. Not just on the floor itself, but pushed up on the underside of seats, against the wall, wherever it’s possible to squash something.

Half the job

Uh, huh. But only the floor is cleaned. Thorough enough, but missing out any smears there might be elsewhere. Go through the WHO manual and you’ll see that detailed though it is, there’s lots of other places get missed too – behind things, under things, in the cracks in between things.

Easy places for germs to lurk. Like norovirus. Or Ebola if your aircraft is flying that way.

Which means that even though your plane might be cleaned and disinfected several times over, it can still harbour germs that can get you – as this Air New Zealand case showed up in 2009.

So why aren’t these measures enough? There are measures for avoiding bugs like norovirus, why aren’t they working?

One reason is our mind-set.

If we don’t catch a bug by breathing it in, we think of it as being spread by physical contact – touching each other, or touching surfaces like grab handles, seat backs and armrests (fomites) – actually contracting it through the skin.

ALL germs are airborne

Ahem. Ever noticed what happens when you swirl around in a dusty room? Clouds of stuff everywhere, sometimes so thick you can’t see – floating around, taking an age to settle back down.

Germs are like that – floating around in the air, all the time. And they’re millions of times smaller than a dust speck – invisible, riding the air in their billions – often small enough to go right through your aircraft’s HEPA air conditioning filters without stopping.

Which means clean all the surfaces without cleaning the interior air, and the airlines are only doing half the job. In the still moments at the gate before you step aboard, these germs have time to settle – ready for your hand to make contact on the seat back, as you steady yourself to sit down.

Hello, norovirus.

Unless of course, your airline is using a Hypersteriliser – a machine that kills germs by spraying them with hydrogen peroxide. A lot safer than sodium hypochlorite or formaldehyde – a banned substance anyway in European biocides.

Vaporised hydrogen peroxide is already proven to be superior in ridding germs from aircraft. But by ionising the hydrogen peroxide into a plasma, the Hypersteriliser is even more effective.

Plus performance germ-killing

Two things happen with ionisation.

The hydrogen peroxide molecules become actively charged, like magnets with the same poles together, immediately trying to escape each other. This forces them to disperse in all directions, up through the air and hard up against all surfaces, burrowing deep into cracks to avoid each other.

The charged molecules are actively attracted to the opposite charge of viruses and bacteria, latching onto them in mid-air or wherever they happen to be – oxidising them to oblivion.

The stuff doesn’t clean the plane – that job still has to be done first. But it does get rid of the germs – all of them – to a Sterility Assurance Level of Log 6.

Your plane is now sterile. 99.9999% of viruses and bacteria – gone. No norovirus, no anything. (Tweet this)

Just the ticket, eh?

You might like to mention this to your airline next time.

It’ll keep you out of trouble – and your cabin crew would be glad to know.

How Ebola could double your airfare

Aircraft at gate
Twenty minutes to sterilise a whole plane? And 99.9999% germ-free too.

An aircraft sits on the ground – quarantined for suspected Ebola. No confirmation or anything, a passenger just threw up on the flight.

Air sickness? Rich food? Nervous tension? Or good old norovirus?

Nobody’s taking any chances. So passengers sit to have their symptoms checked.

Time is money

And the meter is running – landing fees, apron fees, security, ground staff support, aircraft servicing, facilities supply, passengers transfers, aircraft valeting, sanitation.

At Heathrow, it could cost over £20,000 just to land. Once down, just sitting parked is around £200 an hour. None of the other fees are cheap either. You wouldn’t want them to be. Passenger safety and security is much too important.

It may be slightly cheaper at Madrid’s  Barajas airport. Where an Air France Airbus A320 landed on Thursday to be be immediately quarantined – because a passenger from Lagos was on board who displayed signs of the Ebola virus.

After getting the passengers off, a statement  by Air France said the return flight was cancelled and the aircraft would be disinfected. More time, more money.

And it’s starting to happen more and more.

Everyone in a tizz

Like Flight 1143, another Airbus A320, the Frontier Airlines aircraft on which Ebola victim Amber Vinson flew from Cleveland to Dallas on 13th October.

This one has the Americans in a total tizz. It’s been returned to service, cleaned several times following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines which themselves are vague, and now sits grounded in Cleveland – presumably awaiting major decontamination.

The same hesitation is all over – aircraft quarantined and then grounded. Emirates Flight 237 from Dubai to Boston on Monday. The KLM flight to Amsterdam from Glasgow three days ago. Another KLM flight from Amsterdam to Værnes in Norway back in August. The Gambia Bird flight from Freetown to Gatwick via Banjul the week before.

A lengthy process

It takes time to decontaminate an aircraft. And it’s a messy business. Recommended by the World Health Organisation, the preferred procedure after thorough cleaning is to seal the aircraft and admit carboxide gas – a mixture of 10% ethylene oxide and 90% carbon dioxide – pumped in under pressure and maintained at a constant temperature for 6-12 hours.

A second method involves ethylene oxide and Freon II for a similar period. Or introducing betapropiolactone in vapour form for two hours – which must be 98% pure, or it causes a sticky polymer to form on all surfaces.

But it has to be done. Though the Ebola virus can exist outside the body for only a short time, its incubation period is 21 days. During which time how many passengers came on board and what did they touch?

Do the math. Schedule an increasing number of planes through the process as Ebola cases multiply – and sooner or later, it’s going to hit your credit card.

The Nigerian alternative

Unless of course, the airlines choose to use hydrogen peroxide. Twenty minutes per aircraft and all viruses and bacteria that may have been on board are gone – a reduction of 99,9999%.

The same stuff is already being used to combat Ebola in Africa. Already more than 100 super-misting machines have been sent to Nigeria, the only country which can claim to have brought the outbreak under control.

Let’s hope the airlines are watching – before our fares go through the roof.