You can now (sort of) relax about gross stories of airplane seat tray tables, and stop worrying (somewhat) about how many unwashed hands have touched that seat armrest you’re sharing on your flight.

Aircraft seat manufacturer Recaro Aircraft Seating, Germany, promises better cabin cleanlieness and hygiene by protecting the most frequently touched plastic and metal parts of folding tables, armrests, and seat backs with coatings which kill germs and bacteria.

As a plus, these coatings also make cleaning quicker and easier for the staff who maintain the cabins between flights.

With growing numbers of airline passengers flying every day (each with her or his own interpretation of good sanitary practices) maintaining cabin cleanliness and hygiene onboard is more critical than ever.

Recaro cites scientific studies (including from Kiril Vaglenoc, Auburn University, USA) “conclude that the degree of cleanliness in aircraft cabins does not significantly differ from that in other public places, such as theaters or cinemas.”

In fact, Vaglenoc’s study, funded through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center, emphasises that airlines should take steps to reduce the risks to passengers from bacteria and pathogens which may concentrate on certain cabin surfaces, some of which have long lives.

The study focused specifically on determining how long E. coli O157:H7 and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, could survive in cabin conditions. The graduate student of Auburn’s Department of Biological Sciences studied material samples, supplied by a major commercial airline, from armrests, plastic tray tables, seat-pocket cloth, window shades and metal toilet buttons.

“Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on these surfaces, particularly the porous material such as armrests and seat-pockets,” said Vaglenov. “Air travelers should be aware of the risk of catching or spreading a disease to other passengers and practice good personal hygiene.”

In the study Vaglenov simulated the temperature and humidity levels of normal aircraft cabin conditions and reported that MRSA survived longest (168 hours) on material from the seat-back pocket. E. coli O157:H7 could survive for 96 hours on the material from the armrest.

So, careful what personal items you put in that seat back pocket, and maybe let the other guy have the armrest.

“The point of this study is not to be alarmist, but to point out to the airlines the importance of providing a sanitary environment for travelers,” said professor Jim Barbaree, director of the study and mentor for Vaglenov. “We want to work with them to minimize the risks to human health.”

Vaglenov suggested antimicrobial surface treatments might be solutions to these risks.

“Every traveler is looking forward to a tidy, appealing and properly cleaned seat for a relaxed time on board. Airlines want satisfied customers who feel comfortable on board and in their seats,” Recaro says.

There’s no arguing with that.

79E5408_full.jpg“The special plastic surfaces and metal parts of our Recaro aircraft seats offer very good protection from soiling, providing passengers with added safety and comfort,” says René Dankwerth, member of the executive team and responsible for the department Research and Development at Recaro. “On request, we equip our seats with an easy-to-clean surface, that makes it even easier for airlines and the cleaning crew in an aircraft to keep the cabin and seats sanitary. Furthermore, thanks to the antimicrobial properties of the coating, germs disappear within a short time. With our aircraft seats, we want to support our airlines in presenting themselves as the perfect hosts for travelers. And this, of course, applies to all classes, whether economy, premium economy or business class seats from Recaro.”

Shedding Light on Cabin Hygiene

Everyone wants cleaner cabins, including airlines who have to replace soiled and damaged parts in the cabin at great expense.

Surface treatments which could help maintain clean cabins are a welcome solution. With materials technology evolving, we can expect these to become more common.

There are also high-tech cabin hygiene options.

We remember Boeing’s self-cleaning airplane lavatory proposal which won a Crystal Cabin Design award this year. It used a combination of surface coatings and ultra-violet light to make plane toilets more hygienic.

Zodiac Aerospace had a very innovative proposal to install a UV-Lighting solution in the airplane cabin which could sanitize all surfaces during turn times when the aircraft was empty. While this light could kill bacteria and pathogens, it will do little to remove stains. That makes surface treatments an ideal complement.

Good Cabin Hygiene Starts with You

Of course, passengers can help themselves by travelling with sanitizers and cleaning wipes to clean these bacteria-prone surfaces on the plane. Washing hands regularly, with ordinary soap and water, is also recommended.

It’s important for passengers to remember that—no matter how long they spend on the plane, though they might be eating, drinking, watching TV, and sleeping on that plane—an airplane is not home.

Others have shared that space. Following basic hygiene practices which apply in any public space is wise.

A personal peeve: Taking shoes off and walking around the cabin barefoot (or in your socks) is a very bad idea. Putting your feet (bare or with socks or shoes on) up on airplane surfaces is also very bad manners.

We should never get too “comfortable” on the plane.

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