aircraft cleaning
Aircraft operators have numerous choices when it comes to disinfection products and systems. Experts say they should ask lots of questions and make sure the products do what their makers say they do.

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Aircraft operators have much to consider regarding which methods they should use for disinfection.

Aircraft operators are being presented with myriad ways to protect their crews and passengers from COVID-19. As more becomes known about the virus, some solutions are emerging as more suitable than others.

“We are getting smarter,” said Frances Gristead, CEO of decontamination-system provider Curis and founder and CEO of Pathogend Bio-Decontamination Services. Speaking this week at the National Business Aviation Association’s continuing webinar series on aircraft disinfection practices, she noted, “It used to be that people had no idea of the difference between bleach and quaternary ammonium, and now we are seeing a much more educated buyer and user."

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She explained that the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing concerns how many live pathogens remain on a surface after treatment—a tally known as log reduction: the higher the number-log, the fewer pathogens left behind. Operators must decide what level of disinfection (log reduction) they are looking to achieve.

It is a complicated topic, Gristead said, and before choosing a disinfection method, operators need to do research and view alternatives skeptically. This is especially true since there are now lawsuits where plaintiffs are claiming they were exposed to an environment where they contracted COVID-19. In such cases, companies might need to prove they did all they could be expected to do to protect the health of their clients.

Aircraft owners should demand to see peer-reviewed data for disinfection products and systems to ensure that they do what their manufacturers claim they can do. According to Greistead, some products are not regulated by the EPA, and so their makers generate their own data.

To achieve the intended log reduction, users of disinfectant products need to follow the manufacturers' application instructions. For products that are federally regulated, they also need to adhere to guidelines from the EPA and CDC.

In addition, purchasers of these products should see what guidance the airplane's manufacturer offers regarding their use, said Nathan Winkle, founder and president of aircraft maintenance management provider Thoroughbred Aviation. 

Some products might require specific removal techniques after application, while others might leave residues that can actually foster pathogen growth after the active ingredient has worn off. Some products can also lead to other environmental problems.

Gristead said aircraft operators should be prepared to re-treat their airplanes and vary their sanitizing methods, as pathogens can develop immunities against specific disinfection products. 

“The challenge for us is it's uncharted territory,” said Greg Hamelink, Stryker Corp.’s senior manager for flight operations and maintenance. 

In some cases, he noted, a discrepancy exists between the sanitizing product manufacturer’s recommended application and what the aircraft manufacturer suggests.  “We’re trying to apply products correctly," Hamelink said, "but we’re also trying to go with the aircraft manufacturer’s recommendations so that we don’t do undue damage, so it’s a bit of a dance for us."