Boeing Looks To Kill COVID-19 On The Flight Deck With Heat

Boeing’s longstanding collaboration with the University of Arizona is producing results. As part of Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative, the aircraft manufacturer teamed up with university researchers to test which products, methods, and technologies work best to kill the COVID-19 virus on aircraft. They’ve recently determined an old school technique, thermal disinfection, is highly effective at combatting COVID-19 on the flight deck.

Boeing Looks To Kill COVID-19 On The Flight Deck With Heat
Aircraft flight decks can be tricky spots to clean and sanitize. Photo: British Airways

Flight decks traditionally a tough place to clean

Flight deck equipment and surfaces are ordinarily hard to clean. Traditional chemical disinfectants can interfere with sensitive electronic equipment. But Boeing says heat can disinfect without adverse effects from chemical cleaners.

“Thermal disinfection could deliver another valuable tool to destroy COVID-19 on sensitive and difficult-to-reach components that protect pilots,” said Michael Delaney, who leads Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative team.

Research conducted by the University of Arizona and Boeing shows that the virus can be destroyed by more than 99.99% after exposure to 50° Celsius temperatures and will still effectively kill more than 99.9% of the virus at 40° Celsius temperatures.

Boeing says the cockpit is designed to withstand temperatures up to 70° Celsius, making thermal disinfection a safe, practical, and effective sanitization method.

“We’re basically cooking the virus,” said Dr. Charles Gerba, University of Arizona microbiologist and infectious disease expert. “Thermal disinfection is one of the oldest ways to kill disease-causing micro-organisms.”

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Most airlines have put a renewed focus on cabin and flight deck cleaning in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Ultraviolet lighting also an effective way to sanitize aircraft flight decks

Thermal disinfection isn’t the only way to safely sanitize a plane’s flight deck. Simple Flying has previously reported on the use of ultraviolet lighting to clean an aircraft’s interior, including cockpits. Along with other airlines, United Airlines is using handheld ultraviolet lighting devices to clean flight decks. Used correctly, ultraviolet lighting damages the nucleic acids within an organism and prevents them from replicating. Tests have demonstrated that ultraviolet lighting can sterilize 99.9% of the coronavirus within 30 seconds.

“Flight decks have many working parts, screens, and components that are challenging to clean with traditional hand wipes and liquids, especially for someone who isn’t a pilot. The UVC lighting gives us a faster, more effective disinfection of one of the most important areas of the aircraft,” Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, said in August.

Traditionally, the level of cleanliness in many aircraft cabins was a bugbear with many travelers. One of the side-effects of COVID-19, and hopefully one that will last, is a new focus on cleaning aircraft interiors better and more often.

Ultraviolet lighting is also an effective way to sanitize aircraft flight decks. Photo: Boeing

Problems with traditional aircraft cabin cleaning methods

Mostly, that cleaning has been a spray and wipe type operation. The two standard techniques are either clean (with detergent) and dry or spray (with disinfectant or sanitizer) and wipe. Cleaning and drying a surface with a non-germicidal detergent works well against some pathogens but not all. But many pathogens are hardy little critters. The problem is non-germicidal detergents can spread pathogens from contaminated spots to clean spots. A tray table corner might be contaminated, and cleaning and drying can spread that contamination over the rest of the tray table.

Spray and wiping with chemical disinfectants can work in areas of a plane’s interior where the moisture won’t interfere with electrical systems. The problem is that the disinfectant needs to be applied per instructions. Often that means leaving the disinfectant to work its magic on a surface for 10 to 15 minutes. That doesn’t necessarily happen in real-life environments like an aircraft cabin clean during time-sensitive turnarounds.

The advantage thermal disinfection has, like ultraviolet lighting, is speed. Thermal disinfection takes seconds to clean a surface. High-quality, hot saturated steam is targeted and highly germicidal. Thermal disinfection is also chemical-free. It’s an old school technique that contamination sensitive environments like hospitals and laboratories have used for decades.

Now Boeing and the University of Arizona think the technique has applications on aircraft flight decks and throughout the rest of the plane.

“Passenger and crew safety are our top priorities. That extends from the cabin to the flight deck,” said Michael Delaney.

What do you think? What’s the best way to clean aircraft cabins and cockpits? Post a comment and let us know.