Exercising Flight Deck Cleanliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By ALPA Staff
Capt. Matt Harris (United), left, and F/O Shaun Regan clean the flight deck of a United B-767-400.

For nearly a decade, ALPA has raised concerns about inadequate flight deck health and safety practices, including the need for standardized methods for disinfecting cockpit oxygen masks. The Association’s white paper “Enhancing Pilots’ Occupational Health Protections” and its strategic plan directive to address these issues through the union’s Health and Environment Working Group have helped raise awareness within the aviation industry. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a renewed sense of urgency to this campaign and the need to ensure that the flight deck is a safe environment for airline pilots to work.

F/O Ellen Brinks (Delta), ALPA’s Aeromedical Committee chair, acknowledges, “Despite its catastrophic effect on the airline industry, COVID-19 has given us a means to underscore the need for better flight deck cleanliness standards throughout the industry.”

On May 11, the FAA issued revised Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 20009, drawing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to highlight specific health and safety cockpit practices necessary to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. While the SAFO fell short of mandating the CDC’s recommended guidelines to ensure airline compliance, the alert outlined important steps pilots can take to protect themselves from this serious virus.

Citing more than a half dozen studies, the CDC—and, subsequently, the FAA—called for the use of cloth face coverings “while in public places and when social distancing is not practicable” as an important component of personal protective equipment. The agencies observed that individuals can be asymptomatic and not realize they’re infected, and the use of face coverings helps prevent the virus’s transmission to others.

The updated version of the SAFO stressed routine hand washing and advocated that airlines make available alcohol-based hand sanitizers as well as disinfectant wipes for flight deck surfaces that crewmembers frequently touch. The use of disinfectants in cockpits is a shared responsibility involving both ground crews tasked with cleaning the aircraft and pilots, particularly those whose trip pairings involve multiple airplanes.

Hand sanitizers are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration whereas disinfectants are controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sanitizers reduce the presence of bacteria while disinfectants kill a broad range of microorganisms. Disinfectants sometimes include chemicals like hydrogen peroxide that decontaminate these surfaces by presenting destructive free radicals that attack cell components.

The EPA provides a list of approved disinfectants (List N), but be advised that some of these products can damage certain surfaces. For example, a Boeing multioperator message (MOM) issued on April 23 acknowledged that a multipurpose cleaner called Sani-Cide EX3 shouldn’t be used “on glass surfaces or transparencies, such as displays, HUDs, windows, or digital readouts.” The chemicals in this disinfectant have been known to cause hazing on glass and plastic surfaces. In addition, ethyl alcohol in disinfectant wipes can be potentially detrimental to certain aircraft materials, posing the risk of small cracks on windows and damage to thermoplastic materials.

Boeing’s MOM and an Airbus operators information transmission issued on February 6 outline disinfectant products that can be used, and ALPA members can easily access these and other related documents at www.alpa.org/coronavirus in both the Preflight and Air Safety Organization sections.

Pay special attention to each disinfectant’s dwell time, or the period a disinfectant should remain on a surface to properly cleanse it. For example, Clorox disinfecting wipes require four minutes of surface-time presence while Lysol wipes require 10 minutes. Aircraft manufacturers encourage periodically reapplying damp wipes to keep areas covered for the recommended dwell time, but be aware that the application of soaking-wet wipes has the potential to penetrate exteriors and degrade underlying electrical wiring.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s March 9 letter addressing “recommended disinfection and sanitary practices for aircrafts” and the agency’s broader “Preventing COVID-19 in the workplace: employers, employees, and essential service workers” webpage offers similar guidance.

Find Out More

U.S. ALPA members with questions about COVID-19 can contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, at 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time. Canadian members with questions are encouraged to call Canadian Pilot Peer Support at 309-777-2572. ALPA members can also contact the Association’s Engineering & Air Safety Department at 1-800-424-2470, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. eastern time.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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