COVID-19 Cleaning & Disinfecting Protocols For Aircraft

by Chris Meyer
MnDOT Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – April/May 2021 issue

To say COVID-19 has changed our way of life is an understatement. Wearing face masks has become the new standard, families with children are adjusting to altered methods of schooling, and businesses are having to create new practices to keep customers safe. 

One specific area COVID-19 has had an effect on is how operators clean and disinfect aircraft before and after flight operations. As a pilot and/or aircraft owner, have you done anything differently?

When cleaning and disinfecting aircraft, it’s important to follow any and all guidance published by the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) for your aircraft and equipment. Failure to do so can have damaging effects.

For example, a recent article published by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) illustrated how using certain distillery-produced alcohol products destroyed the instrument panels of two Cessna 172s belonging to a Florida flight school. Both direct application and overspray of the product, coupled with the hot Florida sun, caused significant discoloration of the instrument panel and rendered many of the aircraft’s required placards unreadable.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention provides guidance on addressing surfaces that may have come into contact with the Coronavirus. Proper procedures involve not only disinfecting, but cleaning the surface before disinfectant is even applied. In other words, it’s actually a two-step process. The CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are also working together to provide a list of products that are effective in killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for causing COVID-19 (visit www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2-covid-19). 

The challenge is finding products that satisfy CDC/EPA guidelines, while simultaneously maintaining compatibility with the recommendations provided by the OEMs for your equipment.

MnDOT Aeronautics follows the guidance prescribed by the OEM for its aircraft. The manufacturer recommends specific products, and explicitly states that those “products did not adversely affect samples of hard surfaces, interior leather, or windows.” However, if the recommended products are not readily available, additional guidance is broken out by type of surface.

For aircraft furnishings, they recommend using a solution of 60 percent isopropyl alcohol and 40 percent water. For leather and windows, use only commercially available soap and water, such as dishwashing soap. Lastly, for electronic displays, the guidance says to use a solution of 50 percent isopropyl alcohol and 50 percent water with a micro-fiber cloth to prevent scratches. 

It’s important to note that the guidance described above is only meant as an example; it may not be compatible with your equipment. Every aircraft is different, and anyone cleaning and disinfecting should follow the specific guidance prescribed by the manufacturers.

In all applications, do not spray any solutions directly onto your furnishings or equipment. Instead, spray cleaning solutions directly into your cloth and then make the application. Also, be wary of products containing ammonia, bleach, citric acid, or sodium bicarbonate, as their use can damage aircraft equipment.

If alcohol is an approved disinfectant for your aircraft, it’s important to distinguish the use of isopropyl alcohol and not ethyl alcohol, which was used on the damaged Cessna 172s. The beauty is isopropyl alcohol (also referred to as isopropanol) is also listed as an official EPA classified COVID-19 disinfectant. In fact, many types of isopropyl alcohol-based products are included in the list. However, use caution in that many of these products also contain quaternary ammonium. With repeated use, quaternary ammonium can accelerate corrosion to metallic components. 

Read all product labels to gain a clear understanding of the ingredients before making application to your aircraft. Remember, always follow the specific guidance published by the OEMs for your specific equipment!

One last risk to be mindful of: the threat of inadvertently bumping a switch during cleaning and disinfecting operations. A good practice is to take an inventory of switch positions, both before and after cleaning and disinfecting. This will help prevent inadvertently activating a system when power is applied to the aircraft.

We all have to adapt to new situations and new ways of life. Only time will tell how long it will be before we return to a “pre-COVID” level of operations. Until then, all we can do is make the best of it. And of course, keep our aircraft clean.

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