Inside The Snags United Airlines Hit Trying To Roll Out Its Cleanliness Programs

During past airline industry struggles aircraft cleaning is one of the first things that’s been cut, reducing deep cleans to as little as once every 18 months. Right now though, despite unprecedented challenges, airlines are doing more than ever to keep their planes clean and disinfected – and make sure customers know it.

This is key to giving customers confidence to travel. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has been evangelizing his airline’s cleaning efforts, and evangelizing masks. He’s made the case on TV that in the current environment an airplane is one of the safest indoor environments, and flying is still safer than driving long distances.

United scored a real marketing coup when they licensed Clorox’s name for their efforts. This week they promised to increase outside airflow during boarding and deplaning. And at the end of next week they’re slated to introduce a new cleaning technology into their cockpits.

However conversations with several airline executives paint a different picture of the airline’s investments. While on Monday CEO Scott Kirby said “I am going to keep encouraging our team to explore and implement new ideas, new technologies, new policies and new procedures that better protect our customers and employees,” I’m told they’ve even let go of the employee driving their cleaning technology projects as part of non-union layoffs.

UVC Cockpit Cleaning Scheduled To Start August 1

United will be soft-launching UVC cleaning of cockpits on August 1, though they may even start a few days ahead of schedule. You may be more familiar with UV-A and UV-B rays, which can give you a sunburn. UVC doesn’t generally make it to ground level, so immunity doesn’t get built up around it and it can kill flu, cold, ebola, sars, covid, listeria, e coli, and more.

The airline has secured 100 UVC emitting “hand blades” which will be used by the airline’s contract cleaners while wearing protective clothing and safety glasses on aircraft overnights.

Rollout is limited to cockpits, though. The airline tested an airborne drone with UVC lights, flying it inside the cabin of a Boeing 787-10, but they judged it too expensive and slow for roll out. For one thing they need drones that can be controlled without GPS, since the airframe can block GPS signals.

The airline also tested a Boeing unit which was essentially a vacuum casing strapped to a back pack (“Ghostbusters-looking”) that used Far UVC that doesn’t require protective gear because it isn’t harmful to people. However the equipment weighed approximately 36 pounds and couldn’t squeeze in flight deck doors (especially on Boeing 737s) and, I’m told, generates ozone on the flight deck.

Electrostatic Spraying Hit A Snag

The dominant cleaning process airlines are promoting is use of electrostatic sprayers to disinfect planes. Here United saw Delta’s announcement and quickly went out and copied them, according to people familiar with the matter. However United’s roll out of electrostatic sprayers has been clunky to say the least.

They say publicly they are “[u]sing electrostatic spraying on all aircraft before departure for enhanced cabin sanitation.” However executives tell me this is not true. United is still only doing electrostatic spraying on planes that overnight at hubs and their bigger line stations. Many of the units they purchased had to be returned to the manufacturer due to defects. And getting the devices was slowed when, according to a source, the plant making the Covid-19 disinfecting units was hit with an outbreak of Covid-19.

Looking At Chemical Coating Of Passenger Cabins

I’m told that United is looking at using Z71 sanitizing chemicals sprayed in its cabins. Deemed non-toxic, the compound remains coated on surfaces for up to a month continuing to kill viruses.

United Express Partners Aren’t Yet Doing Everything Mainline Does

Regional partners don’t have their procedural standards set yet for UVC. A UVC demonstration was done for them this month but there was no agreement about who would buy the equipment from the company in Lebanon, Indana that manufactures them.

Missed Opportunity To Be A Leader In Cleanliness

CEO Kirby wants media attention for their cleanliness, because it’s crucial for bringing passengers back into the air. But they’re mostly promoting the basic elements of an aircraft that were already in place before the pandemic (refreshing cabin air and HEPA filters), along with their licensing the Clorox brand for their efforts.

They’ve already flown a UVC drone through a cabin, if they invested to make that work it would be a huge media event – combining the latest in clean with the latest in cool. If they expanded their efforts to use technology, rather than merely wiping down surfaces, to keep gate areas clean and went a step further – regularly sterilizing all of the terminals that they control – to make the entire travel process as clean as possible they’d have an answer to “cabin air may be safe but what about the airport and passengers crowding in the gate area?”

There are UVC pot lamps that could be installed at the airline’s kiosks for continual disinfecting, and this would apparently help not just with surfaces but killing aerosolized virus as well. The TSA witnessed the airline’s demo of UVC blades, the airline could work to drive broader adoption of the technology so it’s used not only in terminal areas they control.

Delta was a leader early on, and United copied them with sprayers. But United has been most out front promoting cleaning efforts, they’ve had the opportunity to take the steps that would match the rhetoric and haven’t gotten there yet. And, according to airline executives I’ve spoken with, aren’t likely to do much more here either.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I keep saying there is a reason United Airlines hired Josh Earnest, previously Obama’s Press Secretary, to be Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer. He knows how to spin. (Said as a compliment).

    They “partnered” with Clorox…the same word they use to describe their “regional partners” ….that are anything but partners.

    Talk is cheap. Kirby needs a good story to tell as he cuts.

    “Money talks, BS walks” as the saying goes. UA has a good talker now to go with Mr. Spreadsheet.

    Stay tuned for further “enhancements.”

  2. They know the problem is people breathing on each other though, right? It doesn’t really matter how dirty your arm rest is… are they cloroxing their passengers trump style?

  3. Your attempt to demean a company who’s already been way too critically beaten down by the media because it’s the cool company to hate is clunky to say the least.

  4. @Bob Wigor
    Do you think United’s procedures are adequate, or the best they can be? I’m fine with the criticism but if you could just paint some color on it? It seems like delta is doing the best job among all the domestic carriers, followed by in no particular order Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, etc.

    It seems like American and United are doing the worst job, I’m not clear which one is better or worse? They aren’t limiting capacity, as Gary notes there are issues with at least UA’s cleaning program, and unlike Delta they have not spun up an effort to test every single employee although they do test in more limited circumstances.

    Also few people are talking about if its dangerous to fly in a 50 seat plane with no HEPA filters, and those birds are still flying out there, maybe evne on Delta?

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