AviationPros Special Report: How the Industry is Working to Combat COVID-19

Aug. 13, 2020
Airport management, aircraft maintenance personnel and ground service providers are increasing disinfection protocols to increase safety and restore the public’s confidence.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a host of new challenges for the aviation industry. As airlines struggle to get back on their feet and airports examine their operations, a massive sea change is taking place.

One of the biggest permanent changes we’ll see is a fundamental shift in cleaning services inside the terminal.  

Jeffrey Holaly, key account director for ISS, said cleaning programs traditionally focused on aesthetics, but not the science of disinfection. The pandemic created a need for change that’s likely to persist.

“A lot of airports and airlines wanted the perception that everything was clean, but they didn’t want to necessarily see people cleaning,” he said. “Now we’ve seen a shift to airports and airlines wanting those cleaning folks to be visible at all times and for people to actually see them doing the cleaning work.”

Thomas O’Rourke, director of aviation, North America for ISS, said airport terminal cleaning programs are likely going to evolve into cleaning/disinfecting programs after the pandemic is over. They will implement technology and techniques to not just clean the facilities but kill viruses.

O’Rourke said making cleaning and disinfecting efforts visible will be key in gaining back the public trust in travel. They want to know they’re being protected in the terminal and on the plane.

“Optics is absolutely crucial at this moment,” he said.

Cleaners at Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) are using electrostatic sprayers to provide a deep clean to the terminal.

Allen Dishman, senior director of operations for Diverse Facility Solutions (DFS), which handles cleaning at BUR, said the sprayer allows efficient disinfecting of areas within the terminal by spraying a positively charged 3M C. diff material onto surfaces.

A supplier brought the equipment to the company’s attention, so DFS made the quick decision to add it into service.

“We wanted to bring this equipment on board because now it gives us the ability to spray all touchpoint surfaces that are public facing,” he said. “We want the passenger experience to be a hygienic one.”

A specially trained cleaner is deployed with the sprayer on a nightly basis. They work from the point of entry of the terminal, spray ticking areas, TSA checkpoints, tubs, stanchions and other surfaces where passengers may touch through to the boarding area.

 Traditional disinfecting methods still take place during the day.

“It’s for passenger ease,” Dishman said.  “If we’re spraying and we’re wiping, we’re leaving a surface that’s dry. I can’t necessarily go through and spray kiosks during the day and now they’re wet.”

The sprayers can also help in the event of an immediate COVID-19 infection at the airport. If an employee or a passenger is diagnosed with the virus, the unit can be deployed for immediate disinfection.

“Because the micron is small enough, I’m also able to spray keyboards, gate agent stands and electronics,” Dishman said. “Before it’s a little more of a challenge to disinfect electronics and get the proper dwell time.” 

Holaly said airlines are increasing cleaning and disinfecting efforts after every flight. Their employees are also getting more involved in the process and make it part of their culture.

ISS started a program with Delta Air Lines in January at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) to disinfect areas of the airport. Detroit is one of the airline’s hubs to Asia, so ISS would clean and disinfect any areas following flights from Asia to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  

“It wasn’t really accepted at first to see people walking around in the Tyvek suits, but now it’s quite the opposite,” O’Rourke said.

The new requirements will change the way staff cleans. O’Rourke said there’s extensive training that goes along with utilizing new techniques and technology, so front-line cleaners will need more skills to meet new standards.

“The big challenge is education,” he said. “We have to make sure staff is educated on proper procedures and PPE safety around the whole evolution of cleaning/disinfection.

“The challenge is the mindset, the paradigm shift that it’s not just spraying window cleaner on a widow and wiping it down. There’ a difference between being clean and being disinfected.”

Holaly said electrostatic spraying of disinfectant will likely become the new standard inside all areas of the airport. He also expects airports and airlines to ask for more frequency of disinfection in their contracts.

Expect major change in airport technology as well. O’Rourke said he sees airports implementing more touchless technology and air handling systems bringing in more outside air instead of recycling from inside the terminal. He also expects more UV lighting placed inside air handling ducts to kill bacteria.

“They will have to use a heck of a lot more outside air and a lot less return air,” he said. “It will cost a lot more money to condition the air correctly.”

Holaly said airports need to tell their story about what they’re doing to protect the public. Anything to reduce the number of touchpoints or cleaning will convey the safety being taken to protect the public.

“A lot of it is going to be increasing the frequency of cleaning and communicating that to the public,” he said.

Cincinnati goes automated

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) implemented autonomous robots in April to aid in terminal cleaning. The Avidbots Neo robot was deployed to autonomously clean floors throughout the terminal on a continuous basis to ensure a high-quality, healthy experience for travelers.

Neo is an autonomous floor scrubbing robot. It uses artificial intelligence, cameras and 3D sensors to adapt to its environment and automatically update its route to avoid obstacles. Neo avoids people, suitcases, furniture, displays and other items.

Neo can operate six hours on a single charge. The airport started a pilot program with the robot in November. It cleaned about 200,000 square feet of flooring per week during the pilot.

Faizan Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of Avidbots, said the robot use 3D cameras and lidar to perceive its environment. The company first walks the robot through the facility, then creates cleaning plans for the facility. The operator can choose one of the plans each deployment and the robot will run the course in the least amount of time possible.

One of the robots can clean 80,000 to 120,000 square feet on one charge, depending on the layout of the obstacles present in the facility.  

“We can show you down to 5 centimeters what got cleaned and what got missed and why it got missed down to a very granular level,” he said. “What were the cleaning settings, what was the floor type and you can audit all of that. If you want to make changes it will do that too.” 

The robot is also used at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT), Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND), Kansai International Airport (KIX), Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL), Ben Gurion Airport (TLC) and Sydney Airport (SYD).

Cobb said he first saw the Neo while on a leadership exchange trip to Changi in July. It was on the heels of a failed attempt at another cleaning robot and knowing Changi’s reputation for quality, it made the unit worth exploring for CVG.

“The impression I saw not only from keeping it clean, but also the customer engagement,” he said. “I saw kids walking close to it and I also saw adults trying to play with it by jumping in front of it.”  

CVG got interested in autonomous cleaning units as driverless vehicles grow in different areas. They wanted a unit that would perform while also meeting employee needs. The Neo was appealing to CVG because it’s self-learning and can adjust its route based on changes inside the layout of the terminal.

Running the units in the middle of the day also includes the optics inside the facility, by showing passengers they’re on top of cleaning issues during a time of an international health crisis.

“The cool thing about this is it can work all day long and it’s constantly learning the environment,” Cobb said. “Very few of them learn on the fly.”

Cobb said CVG has one unit in operation now, but leaders would like to have three, so they would be operating inside all major facilities if money is available in the future. Travelers are engaging with the current unit and shows the public Cincinnati is serious about being a forward-looking airport.

"In the current situation with COVID-19, the world is waking up to the idea that you just have to clean more and more frequently and you can’t do that with people,” Sheikh said. “But the robot you can. It doesn’t get tired.” 

The robots allow Cincinnati to reallocate floor team staff to other areas of critical importance while tackling the COVID-19 health crisis. The airport originally reexamined the housekeeper role at a time when all airports are seeing a labor shortage for what was a low skill job and changing it into a higher skill position. Now it allows them to examine if they can have robots clean and disinfect areas that pose a health risk for humans.

“It’s a simple clean, drop, ingest and dispose of. It keeps the system very simple while at the same time we can have a much higher degree of comfort level that we’re disinfecting to the appropriate amount without jeopardizing the health of workers or the consumer,” he said.

Cobb suggested airports should push a pilot test when picking such a unit. It would allow for a low entry point and will give the vendor a chance to prove the machine will do what is promised. 

Keeping hangars spic-n-span

The first step to ensure a safe and healthy environment for your maintenance crews is to keep your hangar or other maintenance facility as clean as possible. Cleaning is simply the process of removing soils from a surface, opposed to disinfecting, which will destroy and kill microbes such as bacteria and viruses. Regular floor cleaning with an automatic scrubber is a key component to an overall cleaning program. 

“While disinfecting highly-touched areas, such as door knobs, cabinet handles, shared tools, faucets and similar is critical, other surfaces, such as floors, may just need to be cleaned well,” explained Bryan Smith, Sr. Marketing Manager, Americas, Tennant Company. “It is critical to remember you can clean without disinfecting, but you can’t disinfect without cleaning first.”

Keep in mind that generally, it is not recommended to disinfect floors outside of critical areas such as food preparation areas or where bodily fluids may contact the floor. So, a simple sweep and scrub will do the trick when taking care of a maintenance site.

Two industrial cleaning machines that can aid in the cleanliness of floors are sweepers and scrubbers, which help to really scrub deep and keep floors clean. Sweepers remove dry, lose soils and debris, while scrubbers use water and detergent to clean and dry the floor. 

“Sweepers work with a combination of spinning brushes that lift the soil and debris along with a vacuum that pulls the debris into a hopper,” mentioned Smith. “Scrubbers use water with optional floor cleaning chemicals to remove dirt, liquids, grease and other soils. A scrubber sprays a solution on the floor, scrubs with a brush, and then automatically recovers the solution with a trailing vacuum and squeegee leaving the floor nearly dry.”

Both scrubbers and sweepers come in sizes ranging from small walk-behind machines to large riding machines and can be battery or engine powered, depending on the application needs.

Last year, Tennant launched the T7AMR, the company’s first autonomous floor scrubber. “This technology can provide tremendous productivity to your cleaning teams as they are asked to spend more time on disinfecting highly-touched surfaces or other additional tasks,” said Smith.

The frequency of use depends greatly on the types of soil, the amount and type of traffic and the expectations of the facility manager. Tennant recommends facilities to always sweep before scrubbing to ensure that larger debris is removed before scrubbing. Tennant provides equipment that combines these functions into one process known as Sweeper/Scrubbers

Tennant Company has been serving the aviation industry for decades, supplying both civilian and military facilities. Aviation has always been a core market for Tennant equipment and continues to do so during a time when cleanliness is high priority. “We have received many questions about how our products can help prevent the transfer of COVID-19,” explained Smith. “While there is a protocol Tennant has published for disinfecting floors with our equipment, the floor is not always going to be the priority for disinfection. The best way Tennant equipment can help is by enabling cleaning teams to keep the floors clean as efficiently as possible so they have the time to do extra detail work disinfecting the highly-touched surfaces that are more critical to preventing disease transfer.”

Clean aircraft and ground handling facilities

Before the airline industry can recover to pre-pandemic levels, passengers will need to begin booking commercial flights again.

So as travel restrictions around the world are lifted, it will become more important for the flying public to see the industry taking cleaning and disinfecting aircraft seriously. Much of that responsibility falls on the ground service providers carrying out these cleaning duties.

“They can see that we are putting a lot of emphasis on cleaning and we’re taking the whole coronavirus very seriously,” said Brian Giacona, VP of operations at AccuFleet International.

In addition to remain overnight (RON) deep cleans, AccuFleet is applying ultra-low volume (ULV) disinfectant, commonly known as a fogging application, and made plans to acquire electro-static spraying equipment.

“We have started a fogging process for a domestic carrier,” Giacona said. “The chemical, based on the manufacturer’s information, says that it kills all viruses for a 10-day period. It was used during Ebola and in other areas where we’ve had viruses and outbreaks in the past.”

Both the fogging method and electro-static spray are effective disinfecting measures, Giacona explained. The key difference is the fogging method is more labor-intensive as personnel must ensure the mist is applied to all areas of the aircraft.

The electro-static spray, meanwhile, is electrically charged and adheres itself to all the aircraft’s surfaces.

“So you can virtually just walk down the airplane and spray this stuff in the middle, and it will attach to the walls, the seats, under the seats – any surface that has an area for it to attach to,” Giacona noted, adding this equipment is in high-demand.

The disinfection process can be daily or spread out over a period of days, depending on how long the chemical lasts on the surfaces.

“We’re also recommending more thorough deep, or heavy, cleans,” Giacona said. “A heavy clean is a very labor-intensive clean on an aircraft. It’s not just walking on, wiping down a tray table and vacuuming the floors.

“We’re currently doing heavy cleans on a nightly basis for a domestic carrier, where we’re doing them every single night in all of their locations that they have AccuFleet in,” he continued. “That clean basically entails scrubbing the airplane down from top-to-bottom. We’re using disinfection chemicals. We’re cleaning every crack and crevice, to the point where we even remove the seat tracks off the floor and clean underneath them.”

A deep clean on a 737 takes approximately 40 man-hours to accomplish, Giacona said. So, for AccuFleet to accomplish this, a group of 6-8 people clean an aircraft continuously for 5-6 hours.

While many cleaning agents can be utilized to disinfect aircraft, Giacona urges ground handlers to be mindful of an airline’s approved-chemical list.

Beyond cleaning services, at WinMar Engineering Technologies, officials are utilizing technology developed by Far-UV Sterilray to disinfect the air.

“We know the SARS-2 Coronavirus, similar to SARS-1, spreads in the air when people are just exhaling,” said Ed Neister, chief scientist at Far-UV and inventor of Excimer Wave Technology. “The virus, before any symptoms show, are going to be exhaled in little, tiny, 1-micron aerosol droplets that the human body normally makes.

“We consider air disinfection very important.”

Marty Craig, managing director with WinMar Engineering Technologies, also works for ADSI – an FAA Part 145 repair station. Years ago, ADSI applied the Sterilray program to aircraft in order to keep cabin air systems clean.

“That subsequently led to many other long-term interactions and planning,” Craig said. “We started WinMar Engineering to do some of the engineering for the ground services segment – not only cabin air inflight operations, but also ground handling and ground-related items.”

Sterilray manufacturers lamps that project a specific type of ultra-violet light that targets the proteins and peptide bonds of bacteria and viruses.

“Coronavirus turns out to be very, very susceptible to the Far-UV Light,” Neister said. “It targets the capsid in the virus, and that’s why it kills the virus so well.”

With limited modification, the system can be used elsewhere.

“On the ground side of it, it’s particularly focused on operational centers, air cargo container areas, gateways, jetways, any enclosed area that supports the commercial operations of aircraft – including FBOs and things like that as well,” Craig said.

The lamp can be made as small as a magic marker or as much larger fixtures.

“We have a wand that we can move over the surface that we want to disinfect – at 1 foot per second to 2 feet per second and get 100-percent disinfection,” Neister said. “We also have, what we call Luminaires, which are lamps in a fixture that sits in the top of a hung ceiling.”

Lamps mounted to hoists and rail systems also allow flexibility for cleaning these areas.

According to Neister, the Far-UV light is not harmful to human skin and is also safe when working with animal cargo.