We’re all worried about COVID-19 these days, whether for ourselves, our families, our communities, or people around the world we’re all a part of. We’re seeing a lot of advice to avoid particular areas, and a lot of people are deciding not to travel so as not to either catch or spread the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the disease.

A person in a suit cleans an airplane.
All Emirates flights departing Dubai undergo enhanced cleaning © Emirates

The global outbreak of COVID-19, the pneumonia-type disease that results from infection by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, is a matter of concern and worry for many people around the world. While many airlines have cancelled flights to cities in China, others have cancelled flights to hard-hit regions like Italy, and demand for travel has dropped substantially, flights are still operating from most airports to most destinations.

Read more: Should I cancel my travel plans in light of the coronavirus outbreak? 

While some companies are cancelling business travel, the question of whether or not to continue with a planned vacation becomes a personal one. So what happens when people travel the world in the midst of an outbreak? The airline industry is doing its best to get people on their way as safely and hygienically as possible.

Airlines have strong procedures and get advice from the likes of the CDC

To reassure you, airlines have standard procedures to prevent the spread of diseases on board. If it helps, 2019 was not the first time anyone in aviation had thought of this. Airplanes are designed to reduce the risk of catching anything from your fellow passengers. For a start, they have HEPA air filters using the same kind of technology that you’ll find in hospitals. On most planes, the air enters from overhead, circulates downward and flows outwards in the lower wall panels by the window seats. (That’s why you may sometimes feel a draught there.) It then goes through the air filter, and is mixed with fresh air from outside the cabin before returning overhead.

The interior of an airline cabin, looking down the aisle.
Airplanes have HEPA air filters to make sure the air is clean © Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

“HEPA air filters extract more than 99.999% of even the tiniest viruses, as small as 0.01 micrometers. Coronaviruses, which range from 0.08 to 0.16 micrometers in size, are filtered by the HEPA filter,” Delta Air Lines explains. Helpfully, the relatively dry, relatively high-altitude air in most aircraft cabins should be rather less hospitable for viruses like the coronavirus causing COVID-19, than our lives closer to sea level. Airlines are also adding additional and more frequent cleaning, following procedures laid down by experts.

Read more: What's the risk of coronavirus exposure on a flight? See these CDC guidelines

Delta says that it is also adding extra disinfection and sanitation to flights incoming from high-risk areas including Asia:

-         All tableware, dishes, cutlery and glassware are being sanitised / disinfected before washing.

-         All unused inbound supplies are being discarded.

-         Inbound linen and headphones are being segregated and washed/sanitised/disinfected separately from other linen and headphones.

-         All galley equipment including carts and carriers are being segregated, sanitised/disinfected and washed.

-         Supplies are being increased of wellness items such as hand sanitiser, gloves and surgical masks for customers and crews on all flights in and out of Asia.

-         All customers on long-haul international flights are provided with amenity kits, which contain hand sanitiser or cleansing towelettes.

An empty interior of an airplane.
Airlines are taking precautions in light of the coronavirus outbreak © Thanakorn Phanthura / EyeEm / Getty Images

Additionally, airlines are adjusting their inflight service and the ways they hand out food and drinks. On United, for example, crew will be wearing gloves during the service and passing drinks directly to you rather than using a tray. Most airlines will be relying on the advice of their national disease control agency, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, also known as the CDC. Airline regulators like the US Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) are also issuing and regularly updating interim health guidance for airlines and crews.

The CDC has a lot of information out there, so if knowledge is reassuring to you, have a read of both the standing guidance for preventing the spread of disease for cabin crew, as well as the special new section of guidance for airlines and airline crew on preventing COVID-19. It will hopefully reassure you that most of these guidelines are, in essence: using the effective cleaning and disinfecting products that have already been approved, in the approved ways.

Airlines are boosting their cleaning procedures to keep you safe

Airplanes are complicated machines, and the plastics, metals and fabrics on board are specially designed, so special cleaners beyond what we might be familiar with at home are used by cleaning professionals. These can often give lasting protection for a number of days after their use. Emirates says it deep cleans 248 aircraft every day departing Dubai, and that it “uses an approved chemical that is proven to kill viruses and germs, leaves a long-lasting protective coating against new contamination of viruses, bacteria and fungi on surfaces, and is eco-friendly.”

Its process includes wiping every surface down: “from windows, tray tables, seatback screens, armrests, seats, in-seat controls, panels, air vents and overhead lockers in the cabin, to lavatories, galleys and crew rest areas. All of this is done in addition to other normal procedures such as changing head rest covers on all seats, replacement of reading materials, vacuuming, and more.”

If no passengers with symptoms were identified on the flight, airlines should use their standard procedures for cleaning the aircraft, managing the garbage, and wearing the kind of personal protective equipment needed. If there is a passenger with symptoms on the flight, then there are special cleaning guidelines for areas within 2m (6ft) of that person. In most cases the airplane undergoes an enhanced deep-clean, taking the aircraft out of service and lasting the best part of a day, defogging and misting with a special disinfectant, replacing air filters, and more.

Airlines are in close contact with their disease control agencies too, and any notification from those agencies means they give the planes a thorough disinfection.

United Airlines, for example, has a special procedure. “When we are advised by the CDC of a person who has travelled on board and is potentially exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, that aircraft is taken out of service and sent through a full decontamination process that includes our standard cleaning procedures plus washing ceilings and overhead bins and scrubbing the interior.”

So, if you do need to fly, be reassured that airlines have strong procedures in place. Take sensible precautions like washing your hands properly and frequently, use alcohol-based hand sanitiser, avoid touching your face, be prepared for flight changes and delays, and travel with kindness and consideration — now more than ever.

Keep up to date with the latest travel-related COVID-19 news here.

Read more:

Asian travelers face discrimination as coronavirus fears spread
A germaphobe's guide to travel
9 apps to keep you happy and healthy on the road

Explore related stories