Flying doesn’t present an outsized risk of contracting COVID-19. While spread is primarily from sustained indoor close contact, mainline aircraft and some regional jets have HEPA air filtration, people aren’t facing each other, and people don’t speak very much. There’s a lot more risk at a choir practice where everyone is constantly emitting respiratory droplets, or in a call center where everyone is talking, than there is on a plane – even before you get to air filtration.
There’s simply no evidence of coronavirus case clusters on planes – aircraft aren’t nursing homes, prisons, or meat packing plants.
There are differences among the airlines in their cleaning procedures, for instance whether they’re using electrostatic spraying overnight or doing this spraying between every flight. Airlines don’t have to schedule their flights as tightly with so many excess aircraft parked, and can plan enough time between flights to allow this (it’s also a logistical challenge to organize this at every outstation they fly to).
And there are going to be differences between cleaning standards. Don’t hope for government regulation of minimum standards here, those are going to be minimum standards, we need a race to the top not the bottom to give passengers comfort to fly. That’s true even though the CDC says that surface contact isn’t a significant source of virus spread.
I’ve written that if I were flying now I would avoid using the lavatory. Those aren’t being cleaned between uses (or at all during flight). The virus may spread through fecal matter. Now more than ever we need Boeing’s self-cleaning lavatories (and for TSA to use self-cleaning bins).
American Airlines Project Oasis Lavatory
However one airline is changing this. Emirates has staff who clean Airbus A380 first class shower spas between uses. The A380 is grounded, and shower spas may not return (at least right away) when the plane does fly. So the airline is redeploying these cleaners to sanitize onboard lavatories every 45 minutes.
Emirates A380 First Class Shower Spa
This is especially crucial on long haul flights where ‘holding it’ just isn’t an option, even with scaled down food and beverage service (the A380 bar won’t re-open when the plane flies either).
It’s hard to imagine U.S. airlines providing lavatory cleaning inflight. That’s something we’ve seen from Asian carriers, but while Southwest Airlines flight attendants collect trash between flight segments overall this is outside the scope of union contracts. There’s no way that Scott Kirby will increase employee count for this.
However if customers care about cleanliness on long haul flights, this could be a real differentiator and a reason to choose Emirates over U.S. airlines. Bailed out U.S. airlines will once again complain that only bailed out Gulf carriers can afford such extravagances.