I’ve Told You If You Fly To Avoid The Lavatories, But This Could Change Everything

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.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Who do you work for? the airlines?– you promote air travel because you earn from it –do you think it is safe to send your children on an around the world flight and hope they return in the same condition

    your safe to fly comparisons of

    “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”

    explain why did the stop air travel if they had HEPA filters and people do not speak much when they fly–

    I always read what you write and think of you as being very smart but not today

  2. We need more posts about things to be scared of.

    I’m already told to social distance (moronic)

    Wash my hands constantly (we’re all lepers apparently, could you imagine if there were germs in our hands?? Goddddd!

    Don’t go to work (because, you’ll die in an office die I guess – and who needs money when the government just hands it out now)

    Don’t go to then bathroom (because germs kill people who do)

    Can I summarize the popular ideas: 1) don’t go anywhere ever again until you’re dead .

    2) don’t do anything with your life unless your told by the news.

    This is #PeakStupid.

    The emperor has no clothes guys. Time to wake up and realize we’ve been had here.

  3. You keep spouting this stuff about “don’t use the airplane lav.” Do you have any evidence to actually back that up?

    Don’t stick your face in the toilet seat. Wash your hands. Carry your own disinfectant wipes and use them to wipe things down if you want. Everyone wear a mask to limit the potential virus they are spreading while in the lav.

    Seriously – how can you leave your house if you think the airplane lav is an existential risk?

    Generally speaking – don’t take health advice from a germaphobe.

  4. I guess some people might suffer from medical conditions necessitating the use of the lavatory inflight. But for everyone else: FFS, go before you board, and again, if necessary, on arrival. It’s not rocket science. I’m guessing it’s mostly boozers and gluttons feeling the need .
    The lavatory should be regarded as ‘emergency only’; it’s not there for those too lazy/stupid/selfish not to have made better arrangements.

  5. The problem is when you travel you will need to use the bathroom. Is there any reason to expect a public restroom in an airport to be clean? It isn’t as if someone is disinfecting it after every user.

    While I have no interest to fly right now, if I had to, I would make sure to wipe down the seat, wear a mask and a sweatshirt with a hood and maybe a hat and bring my own blanket to try and cover my face from anyone coughing, sneezing, etc.

    Unfortunately at some point everyone has to use a bathroom (and no I’m not going the diaper route).

  6. Coffee, tea, or pee? Yeah not thinking I want the same person handling both biohazards & beverages.

  7. Now that the CDC has said transmission by surfaces is very low, this isn’t quite the issue it was. Maybe they just need to put autoclosers on the toilet lids so they can’t be flushed while open.

  8. While Covid-19 has been found in fecal samples, it is a respiratory infection, and there is no evidence of spread in this manner. I suspect the powerful vacuum evacuation of most airplane toilets sucks everything out without much aerosolization. However it seems prudent to close the lid.

  9. “…aircraft aren’t nursing homes, prisons, or meat packing plants….”

    Wow, Gary! Now that’s a great idea.
    Everyone is dead on landing and we have frozen meat!

  10. @Dewayne the flight to Hanoi hyped in the British tabloids? Considering Vietnam has in total 324 cumulatively confirmed cases I doubt it…

  11. “It’s hard to imagine U.S. airlines providing lavatory cleaning inflight”

    The stewardesses keep harping on that they are primarily there for my safety. Then between each lavatory usage they need to get a brush and start scrubbing.

  12. Good article. Sorry a bunch of crackpots who don’t read widely might have ignored all those articles about how public lavatories (especially teeny-tiny lavatories that are confined spaces such as ON AIRPLANES) can be potential sources of COVID-19 spread.

    Hope to see more articles like this in the future, irrespective of what demented delusional trolls might think or comment.

  13. Not trying to be a fearmonger, but numerous sources (not just British tabloids) have reported a cluster of cases generated by an infected passenger flying from London to Hanoi in business class on March 2. She was reportedly the 17th case in Vietnam and the first case in Hanoi, the “patient zero” of Vietnam’s second wave of infections. Several of those infected on that flight have been named in various articles. Reportedly, 13 passengers on the flight got infected, most of them fellow business class passengers.

    There are links to the Vietnamese articles on Wikipedia, and you can use Google Translate to translate them from Vietnamese into English.

    Through Vietnam’s extensive tracing system, everyone the infected passenger came into contact with was contacted and quarantined, and it was contained. I write this because if these reports are accurate, this would be evidence of a cluster related to a flight.

    Seems precarious to argue that “There’s simply no evidence of coronavirus case clusters on planes.”

  14. I have taken many long haul KLM flights and have often seen an attendant cleaning the toilet. They have always been clean and plenty of paper and soap. Well done, KLM.

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