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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 January 2021

United Airlines given top hygiene rating: What does it mean for an airline to be ‘hospital-grade’ clean?

The pandemic has pushed the aviation industry to hold airlines to a common standard for cleanliness

United Airlines has been given a 'hospital-grade' certification for Cleaning and Safety, but what does that actually mean? Courtesy United
United Airlines has been given a 'hospital-grade' certification for Cleaning and Safety, but what does that actually mean? Courtesy United

United Airlines has been given Diamond status in the first Airline Passenger Experience Association (Apex) Health Safety rating.

The first of the four major US airlines to achieve the standard, United is now considered one of the world’s safest when it comes to hygiene standards.

The Chicago-based airline was given the top rating available in the independently verified 58-point assessment. It is one of only nine airlines in the world to have Diamond status in the safety rating operated by one of the world’s largest international airline associations.

Other recipient airlines include Alaska Airlines, Abu Dhabi's Etihad, Saudia, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic and Turkish Airlines.

To achieve the highest status, airlines must satisfy Apex that they fulfil several critical points during travellers' journeys. These are divided into categories that assess check-in procedures, testing and tracing, airport facilities, security, lounge facilities, boarding procedures, in-flight and arrival measures, and sanitisation partnerships.

What does hospital-grade clean mean?

Medical facilities have typically been held to higher standards than most other industries, but the aviaiton industry is set to follow similar rules with new standards of safety and hygeine. Unsplash
Medical facilities have typically been held to higher standards than most other industries, but the aviation industry is set to follow similar rules with new standards of safety and hygiene. Unsplash

Airlines with Diamond status are considered hospital-grade clean says Apex. Typically, medical facilities have been held to higher standards than most other industries and operate to well-established regulations when it comes to hygiene. From using disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces, clinics and other medical facilities follow standardised guidelines for sanitisation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the aviation industry to devise a similar framework to hold airlines to a common standard for cleanliness. Apex's new scientifically-based certification uses independently verified health safety steps to rate airlines for their health and safety efforts.

Every step that we take with airlines to set even higher standards for health safety for passengers ultimately help keep people safer in-the-air and on-the-ground,

Joe Leader, Apex chief executive

To be considered ‘hospital-grade’ clean, airlines must verify that entire fleets are fitted with Hepa filters. These filters can remove more than 99.9 per cent of the microbes in the air. UV disinfection or electrostatic fogging must also take place before each flight.

When airborne, airlines must ensure that crew regularly sanitise high-touch areas. Passenger flights must also be disinfected “at a hospital-grade level on a regular basis," outlines the Apex assessment.

"United Airlines' tremendous customer-centric investments definitively merited the Diamond level of health safety across a broad scoreboard of categories focused on passenger well-being," said Apex's chief executive Joe Leader.

How airlines are cleaning in the Covid-19 pandemic

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, most airlines around the world have adopted new cleaning procedures following guidance from the World Health Organisation, which has released several reports on the subject.

United's CleanPlus programme is in partnership with Clorax and the Cleveland Clinic. Courtesy United
United Airline's CleanPlus programme is in partnership with Clorax and the Cleveland Clinic. Courtesy United

United earlier launched United CleanPlus, a partnership with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic. Collaborating with a trusted name in disinfection and the country's leading medical experts, United developed protocols designed to keep travellers safe on flights and at the airport. As part of this, United employs a full-time, on-site medical director, has rolled out touchless lavatories on select aircraft and is testing artificial intelligence to assist with temperature screenings and crowd detection.

In its Apex assessment, United was lauded for its use of ultraviolet light to disinfect sensitive components in the flight deck, the installation of several hand sanitiser dispensers on flights and its application of Zoono Microbe Shield, an antimicrobial coating approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The airline was also the first major US airline to mandate face masks for flight attendants, quickly rolling the rule out to all passengers and employees.

Other airlines around the world have also strengthened hygiene policies to achieve Diamond status in the Apex assessment.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad introduced Wellness Ambassadors on every flight and at select airports to provide assistance to travellers throughout their journey. It is also the only airline in the world to make Covid-19 testing mandatory before every flight, with 100 per cent of its passengers testing negative since August 2020.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad is one of nine airlines to be awarded Diamond status by the Apex Health Rating. Courtesy Etihad
Abu Dhabi's Etihad is one of nine airlines to be awarded Diamond status by the Apex Health Rating. Courtesy Etihad

Singapore Airlines began enhanced cleaning of its entire fleet using hospital-grade disinfectants and replacing seat covers and head rests on every flight. It also introduced a contactless in-flight entertainment system for travellers.

Navigating an unclear future

To achieve Apex's highest ranking, airlines must provide proof of any updated hygiene measures by way of pictures, videos and flight logs. This evidence is then verified by SimpliFlying, who convert it into a FlyQ score.

United's certification as a Diamond airline means that the company's initiatives were at least 200 points above the Gold-standard baseline established as the minimum required to ensure passenger safety and well-being.

“Airlines that attain over 400 FlyQ points are awarded the Diamond status, for providing hospital-grade health safety for passengers,” says the airline association.

“As more travellers return to the skies, Apex wants customers to know the verified steps being taken by airlines worldwide for their well-being,” said Leader. “Every step that we take with airlines to set even higher standards for health safety for passengers ultimately help keep people safer in the air and on the ground.

The Apex rating is another tool for a travel industry that is trying to navigate its way out of one of the worst periods in aviation history.

After a challenging 2020, early 2021 sees the future of the travel industry remain unclear. Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
After a challenging 2020, early 2021 sees the future of the travel industry remain unclear. Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

After a challenging 2020, early 2021 sees the future of the industry remain unclear. Border restrictions, testing requirements and quarantine policies continue to act as barriers to travel, but hope prevails in the form of new vaccines.

Governments and aviation stakeholders are joining forces to devise plans for a progressive restart of operations. “It is likely that improved routine cleaning could provide reassurance to passengers and increase their confidence in the reduced risk of the transmission of communicable diseases in aviation processes,” documented the International Air Transport Association (Iata) in its Aircraft Cleaning and Disinfection During and Post Pandemic report published in June.

Airlines rated, not ranked

A passenger walks past empty check-in lines at Nice International airport. Eric Gaillard / Reuters
A passenger walks past empty check-in lines at Nice international airport. Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Airlines that wish to be rated by Apex can self-register for evaluation based on standards of cleanliness and sanitisation. Critically, the assessment provides a rating, rather than a ranking.

We believe that health safety should not be a way for airlines to compete with one another. There needs to be a Gold standard that all airlines should meet to ensure passengers can trust the mode of transport,” clarified Apex.

The airline alliance aims to certify 100 airlines across six continents by the end of 2021.

Updated: January 14, 2021 08:12 AM

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