Disinfectant Damage: Are Cleaning Products Harming Aircraft Interiors?

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United Airlines favors UV disinfection over wipes and foggers for use in the flight deck. Image via United Airlines

In the race to make sure aircraft cabins are clean today, who is considering the impact on component longevity for tomorrow? 

American Airlines will soon learn how a new longer-term disinfectant spray will affect its cabins. The company signed a deal with Allied BioScience to apply SurfaceWise2, the first-ever long-lasting product to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, that is approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the agency cannot vouch for its impact on interior furnishings.

An EPA spokesperson notes that “EPA-registered disinfectants undergo a rigorous scientific review to ensure that, when used according to the label directions, no adverse effects on human health or the environment will occur.” That review does not, however, extend to the impact on materials the chemicals might encounter. 

Aircraft cleaning will never be the same again. Many airlines now use foggers to emit a fine mist of cleaning agent throughout the cabin. Those using electrostatic foggers go a step further, ensuring that the aerosol passes around and between cabin elements such as overhead bins and tray tables. While the chemicals kill the microbes they interact with, some say the moisture that carries them may very well be damaging the surfaces as well.

Tapis Corporation sales director Matthew Nicholls believes that airlines and suppliers must be concerned, too. He notes that the commonly used quaternary ammonium-based disinfectants can erode adhesives. With repeated spraying, liquid waste can accumulate, eventually leading to delamination or glue failure, with coverings becoming unstuck from the frames.

Nicholls also calls attention to the risk of premature failure of materials used in seat coverings. Typically, the top coating of a leather covering will break down under repeated exposure to this class of chemicals, and fabric covers are porous by nature. In both cases, excess moisture from the spray may penetrate through the covering and into the cushion, potentially absorbing the liquid and thereby adding weight to the aircraft, or causing the foam structure to deteriorate, leading to discomfort for passengers. 

Synthetic fabrics typically fare better in this regard as they can be engineered for greater chemical resistance. They can also be more easily pretreated with antimicrobial elements for scenarios where the cleaning process is not as thorough.

“Cleanable and disinfectable surfaces will become the new normal.” – Matthew Nicholls, Tapis Corporation

When it comes to electronics, the concerns differ slightly. Moisture is still an issue, though the specific chemicals are less critical. On the flight deck, a fogger or wipes could address the contamination challenges, but they also introduce significant moisture risk. Moreover, airlines generally don’t want non-pilots touching the control systems. To that end, UVC lighting has proven a compelling solution for some carriers. United Airlines chose handheld UVC blades from the American Ultraviolet company to kill any viruses that may reside on sensitive switches and touchscreen displays within the flight deck.

“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,” explains Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice-president of Flight Operations.

Those UVC lights can also be used in the cabin: JetBlue signed a deal in July to trial the Honeywell UV Cabin System, previously known as GermFalcon, in its aircraft. Much like with chemicals, however, airlines must be careful regarding repeated exposure to ultraviolet lighting and its impact on material surfaces. Nicholls notes that his company’s fabrics “saw no issues when tested to 10 years’ worth of UVC exposure,” but says other plastics might not fare so well. 

Thinking of materials in terms of their resistance will be important moving forward, because this issue isn’t going anywhere, Nicholls says: “Once COVID-19 dissipates, it is inevitable that something else will come, so cleanable and disinfectable surfaces will become the new normal.”

“Disinfectant Damage” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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