Early in the pandemic, instead of airlines advertising their new tropical destination, they began marketing the cleanliness of their planes. They tried to put covid-concerned passengers at ease with measures such as HEPA filtration, free sanitizing wipes at the door and deep cleaning after each flight.
Today, however, your plane might look more like it did in 2019 — or even dirtier.
As pandemic fears have eased, science on surface transmission has evolved and airlines cope with staffing shortages, some of those cleaning commitments have been relaxed. Still, experts say it remains safe to fly, especially as vaccinations and natural immunity have become more widespread.
Here’s why your plane might not look as clean as it did early in the pandemic, and what the experts say about the risks of catching the coronavirus on a flight.
Competing on cleanliness
The pandemic threw airlines’ typical marketing campaigns out the window. Instead of advertising new routes, airlines started to compete on being “a leader in responding to the covid crisis,” said Leonard Marcus, who launched the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2020.
Marcus’s team worked with the trade group Airlines for America to create a set of unified recommendations for the industry, presenting them to airline CEOs in October 2020. The report found that with a layered approach — passengers washing hands and wearing masks, and airlines thoroughly cleaning planes and filtering onboard air at all times, including while parked at the gate — air travel could be as safe as eating in a restaurant.
The airlines quickly jumped on board with the recommendations, seeing an opportunity to encourage passengers back to air travel. “The country’s major airlines that are part of [Airlines for America] agreed to that standard, so with that, just as they don’t compete on safety, they weren’t competing on public health, or certainly less so after that,” Marcus said.
The United States’ largest carriers committed to installing hospital-grade HEPA filters throughout their fleets, providing hand sanitizer and wipes, regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces, applying electrostatic disinfectant and deep cleaning aircraft every night.
Some airlines touted partnerships with medical institutions, such as United with the Cleveland Clinic and Delta with the Mayo Clinic. Amid the rise in interest in hygiene, Delta hired a chief health officer and created a Global Cleanliness division, headed by a vice president for global cleanliness.
What measures remain today
The Harvard report was released before vaccines were widespread and much of the population had some immunity from past infections. Those developments have elevated the importance of the individual’s precautions — such as masking — over the recommendations for airlines and airports, Marcus said.
Many of the airlines’ cleaning measures involved disinfecting surfaces, and by the end of 2020 scientists had largely concluded that surface transmission of the coronavirus is rare.
“As more was learned about covid and transmission routes of covid, it was recognized that some of that deep cleaning was overkill,” Marcus said.
And as more passengers have returned to the skies, certain measures airlines advertised in 2020 — such as deep cleaning aircraft between every flight — are no longer operationally possible, said Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying and author of “Soar,” a book on airline branding.
One measure that has stuck around is air filtration. The United States’ four largest carriers — American, United, Delta and Southwest — all continue to use hospital-grade filtration systems on their planes that replace air every few minutes. Many airports employ MERV filters in the terminals, one step below HEPA, and Delta has installed MERV filters in its jet bridges, according to a spokesman.
American and Delta representatives said the airlines continue to provide sanitizer and disinfect high-touch surfaces on the aircraft before every flight including seat belts, tray tables and arm rests, galleys and lavatories. They no longer apply an antimicrobial spray they used earlier in the pandemic; Delta said this decision was guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s determination that the risk of surface transmission is low.
United and Southwest continue to use an antimicrobial spray at regular intervals. A United spokesman said the airline also uses UV-C light to disinfect the flight deck and maintains a full-time medical director on staff. Southwest’s website says its aircraft are deep cleaned for more than six hours each night.
Staffing shortages have cut down cleanings
Beyond the relaxation of some pandemic cleaning protocols, airlines are also dealing with severe staffing shortages that have strained cleaning staff amid soaring demand.
Verna Montalvo, a cabin cleaner for American Airlines at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, said that due to staffing shortages, her crew has as few as four minutes on some days to clean and inspect a plane for weapons or other suspicious items.
“Some flight attendants get upset because it’s not clean,” Montalvo said. “Of course it’s not clean — because this is how much [time] they give us.”
She said that her crew is expected to go from plane to plane with few breaks, and that on three occasions she has been tasked with the cleaning and inspection of an entire plane alone.
“We need time and more people,” Montalvo said, adding that she believes higher pay could attract more workers and alleviate the shortages.
In a statement, American Airlines said it works closely with third-party contractors to “implement our rigorous cleaning protocols.”
“We continuously work with our business partners to ensure adequate staffing levels to adhere to our cleaning standards, and expect all our partners’ compensation structures fairly reflects market levels,” spokeswoman Rachel Warner said. “Should a flight crew determine additional cleaning is needed to meet our standards, they are able to call the cleaning crew back to the aircraft.”
While some passengers have taken to social media to complain about dirty aircraft, airlines and experts said relaxing some of the enhanced cleaning protocols introduced early in the pandemic will not affect passengers’ health.
Hannah Walden, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines, said changes to covid policies “reflect new epidemiological realities, including widespread vaccines and a high level of immunity in the United States.”
“U.S. airlines continue to rely on science to help guide decisions as they updated their procedures and protocols, which has routinely demonstrated that the air on an airplane is some of the cleanest anywhere — including hospitals,” Walden said in an email.
How to stay safe in flight
Early in the pandemic, SimpliFlying recognized that passengers were looking for some kind of “benchmarking” to know if airlines were meeting minimum safety requirements for covid, Nigam said. In partnership with the Airline Passenger Experience Association, the site launched the APEX Health Safety Standard, an accreditation system for airlines’ covid policies.
Thus far, more than 30 airlines have been certified, affirming they have implemented what a board of medical experts considers the minimum standards for the current epidemiological situation. Airlines must redo the audit quarterly, and the categories in the audit have evolved alongside changing science and government regulations, Nigam said.
“For example, at the end of last year, we still had covid-testing measures as a category,” he said. “But now as the relevance of testing has diminished given the latest status, testing is no longer a requirement for airlines to get rated.”
Among U.S. airlines, Delta and United have Diamond certification, while Spirit has Platinum certification. (American said it has an accreditation from another group, the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.)
Regardless of the measures that airlines put in place, Nigam and Marcus said the precautions individual travelers take — such as wearing a high-quality mask — remain the most important factors in staying safe while in the air.
“When I’m on a plane and I feel it’s necessary to take a drink or eat something, I’ll put it under my mask and then get the mask back on as soon as I can,” Marcus said. “If you’re doing all of those activities combined with keeping up on your vaccinations and your boosters, then you can turn flying into a relatively speaking low-risk activity.”