A behind-the-scenes look at how Delta and Virgin Atlantic are cleaning planes at Heathrow

Sep 21, 2020

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Last week, we were given the opportunity to see how Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines are making for a safe and hygienic passenger experience for travellers at Heathrow. For me, not only was it a bizarre experience to be back reporting from an airport, surrounded by jets from nations around the world, but it was even more bizarre to board two different aircraft and not actually fly anywhere.

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Following Richard Ker’sr experience while on the ground at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, looking at how Delta is cleaning its planes between flights, I was invited to London Heathrow as a guest of Virgin Atlantic and Delta to witness the stringent cleaning and health measures both airlines are employing to create a secure COVID-19 environment when flying.

In the airport

On the ground, both airlines said they work closely with airport authorities to put in place measures such as hand santiser stations at check-in and gate areas, the introduction of temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing and encouraging online check-in to reduce touchpoints in the airport. Social distancing is also encouraged and spacing is enforced in many areas, for example, seats are blocked off in the gate areas to ensure distancing.

The boarding process is carefully managed on both airlines. On Virgin flights from Heathrow, boarding is limited to small groups boarding from back to front. And on Delta flights, Delta One passengers and Diamond Medallion members have the option to board when they want, while taking into account which door is used for boarding to ensure passengers don’t have to walk past each other through the cabin. The rest of the aircraft is boarded from rear to front.

Some destinations have additional measures imposed by the authorities of that country, and it’s the responsibility of the airline to abide by those regulations. I could see that when walking past the gate for Virgin’s flight to Delhi, where Indian authorities require temperature checks for passengers and for staff to be in more comprehensive PPE, including a protective gown and face shield.

On board

Delta has a dedicated operation service manager for every flight to ensure cleaning procedures are adhered to. Before every flight, the manager gets a notification on an electronic system that a cleaning audit has been conducted. The crew then performs a secondary check by going through the cabin and ensuring its cleanliness, then communicating they’re satisfied too. Whilst Virgin doesn’t have the dedicated manager, the processes are almost identical.

Delta ensures a portable gate clean kit is available before each flight, which includes disinfectant wipes and protective suits in case crew have to use the electrostatic spray guns themselves — more on that below.

Virgin doesn’t have the same need for portable kits, as it’s at its home base in London.

Electrostatic spraying

During my time on board the Delta A330, I saw the sanitising electrostatic spraying process. It looks to be a fairly simple process — a suited employee points an electrostatic gun around the cabin and a sanitising mist emerges.

The fluid used is the same as for general cleaning, but the electrostatic gun charges the particles, meaning they are attracted to the various surfaces in the cabin. The disinfectant in the spray kills any pathogens, including coronaviruses. Immediately after spraying, the plane is safe for employees and passengers.

During the spraying, which is conducted before each Delta and Virgin flight, all overhead bins are opened and all tray tables are lowered to allow the spray to reach every nook and cranny. Additionally, sprayers enter each of the lavatories on board.

You can read more about the electrostatic spraying and onboard sanitisation process in detail here.

HEPA filters

By this point, you’ve likely heard the term “HEPA filter” when it comes to air travel. But what does it actually mean, and how does the system help to keep passengers safe?

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters include a system of fibres that can catch dust, bacteria, moisture and other contaminants that may harm passengers or crew on an aircraft — and almost all commercial aircraft have them as standard. They are known to be very effective in mitigating the spread of viruses — we were informed that they can catch 99.9% of germs. On both Virgin and Delta planes, the vertical air flow fully refreshes cabin air every 2-3 minutes, utilising the filter.

We got a chance to look at the filters themselves. A large oblong-shaped filter is fitted on Delta’s 767s, and a large cylindrical filter is fitted on Virgin’s 787 Dreamliners.

Related: What the heck is a HEPA filter? How aeroplane air stays clean

Onboard service

On board the Virgin Dreamliner, sanitising packs — what the airline calls Health Packs — are waiting at every seat in every class throughout the aircraft. The Virgin kit includes two packs of hand santiser, two disinfectant wipes, three face masks and a small bag to throw away rubbish. Delta also makes a pack available, including a face mask and two sachets of hand santiser.

On Virgin Atlantic, all meals are served on one tray or box. The hot element is taken from the oven, placed straight into the box or on the tray and served. All elements of the meal are covered.

Economy and Premium classes are served the same exact meals, whilst Upper Class passengers are offered a more luxury meal. I tried the Upper Class risotto dish on my visit, which was delicious if not a little strange to be sitting in a business-class seat eating lunch on the ground. Upper Class meals include a choice of entree, cheese, crackers and dessert and a selection of wine and beer. There is also a second service of Afternoon Tea on day flights and breakfast on night flights. Water, juice and soft drinks are available at all times.

Pre-select and dietary meals have been temporarily suspended, but Virgin confirmed it will be rolling out the special meals again in the coming weeks and months.

On Delta, contact between crew and passengers is also kept to a minimum whilst serving meals. In Delta One, meals are served on a single tray, and although I didn’t try the food, it looked excellent. Pre-departure drinks only include a bottle of water, but meals include a choice of entree, bread and dessert selection.

Delta Premium Select passengers can choose from a choice of main, along with salad, bread and dessert, whilst Delta Comfort+ and Main Cabin will get the main and dessert only. In all cabins, there is a full selection of drinks including beer, spirits and wine.

Bottom line

Seeing the processes behind the scenes, being on board the aircraft and talking to cabin crew, engineering, cleaning staff and senior airline executives, it was clear that these two airlines are taking cleanliness incredibly seriously.

I left the day with a sense that flying on these aircraft was perhaps safer than the places we visit day-to-day, such as the supermarket, which certainly do not go to the same lengths. The hope is that not only will these measures genuinely improve health, cleanliness and safety, but they will restore an element of passenger confidence, which is absolutely essential if the aviation industry is to bounce back.

All photographs by the author.

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