Is it safe to get back on an airplane?

United Airlines cleaning, fogging planes before every flight

As airline travel slowly recovers from coronavirus impacts and more planes begin to fly full, United Airlines continues to clean and sanitize each airplane after after flight.
As airline travel slowly recovers from coronavirus impacts and more planes begin to fly full, United Airlines continues to clean and sanitize each airplane after after flight.

As airline travel slowly recovers from coronavirus impacts and more planes begin to fly full, United Airlines continues to clean and sanitize each airplane after after flight.

On Monday, United showed News 6 how a six-person team spends about 20 minutes cleaning every touch point - tray tables, seat backs, seat belts, window shades, armrests, and air vents.

Then, before passengers and crew members are allowed on board, the team sanitizes the entire plane by spraying a chemical mist.

The cleaning and sanitizing is done on every United airplane every time the plane lands.

Steve Tanzella, General Manager of United Airlines Airport Operations at Orlando International Airport, said flying United is safer now than it has ever been.

"I would say it's very safe," Tanzella said. "With the items that United has put in place to ensure the safety of our customers, we're flying a lot more customers now than we've flown in the past few months and people are starting to slowly come back, and we want to make sure they're safe to travel."

Tanzella said a HEPA filter almost a foot thick cleans the recycled air. Boeing 737s have two filters. Largers planes, like a Boeing 787, have four.

United changes the filters every 5,000 flying hours, Tanzella said, much sooner than the manufacturer-recommended 7,500 flying hours.

Maintenance workers in HAZMAT suits change out the filters. A worker in a protective suit removes the filter and then a different worker wearing a fresh, sanitary HAZMAT suit replaces the filter.

The Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) - battery units that power the plane while the engines are not running - are now activated while the plane is sitting at the gate for less than three hours to supplement ground power and add additional power to the filtration system, Tanzella said, so clean and cool air is blown throughout the plane while it is sitting.

And while in flight fresh air is sucked into the passenger compartment every 2-3 minutes at 30,000 feet, according to Tanzella, so passengers aren’t solely breathing recycled air.

"It's coming through the engines, being taken into the aircraft, circulated through the HEPA filters," Tanzella said. "So this is not the same air in the cabin circulated over and over."

For that reason, Tanzella said there's no particular direction that passengers should aim air vents to improve safety.

"It's largely fresh air is so it doesn't really matter," Tanzella said.

United passengers are given alcohol wipes when they board to wipe down their sitting area.

Snacks and water are now handed out in a single, sanitary "all-in-one" bag to eliminate the possibility of transferring germs.

And all crew members and passengers are required to wear masks on board all United flights, especially as more seats are filled and social distancing becomes impossible.

"I would say that we have customers on planes that are full and we haven't had any complaints," Tanzella said. "And if they do not want to fly on an aircraft we have alternate ways of letting them fly on another flight."

Tanzella said United passengers at no charge can ask to be switched to another flight if they are uncomfortable with capacity. Most, however, choose not to.

The check-in process has also become safer, according to Tanzella, with the addition of touch-less check-in kiosks. Passengers who pre-pay for their checked luggage and check in on their mobile devices can scan their boarding passes at kiosks and bag tags will be printed automatically without ever touching the screen.

Orlando International Airport said passenger traffic is showing signs of recovery, as the 7th busiest airport in the nation for departures.

Traffic was down almost 100% at the height of the pandemic. As of Aug. 17, it is down 65%.

On Sunday, 24,965 passengers departed the airport. Normal projected departures would be 73,712 at this time of year.


About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.