Dubai-based airport services company Dnata is testing a robot armed with virus-killing ultraviolet light on aeroplanes after teaming up with Swiss start-up UVeya.
The project aims to restore passenger confidence and spare the travel industry more pandemic pain.
Trials are taking place inside Embraer jets from Helvetic Airways, a charter airline owned by Swiss billionaire Martin Ebner.
Aircraft makers must still certify the devices and are currently studying the impact UV light may have on interior upholstery, which could fade after many disinfections, UVeya co-founder Jodoc Elmiger said.
Still, he is hopeful robot cleaners could reduce people's fear of flying, even during the pandemic.
"This is a proven technology. It's been used for over 50 years in hospitals and laboratories. It's very efficient," Mr Elmiger said on Wednesday. "It doesn't leave any trace or residue."
Mr Elmiger's team has built three prototypes so far, one of which he demonstrated inside a Helvetic jet at Zurich Airport, where traffic plunged 75 per cent last year.
The robot's lights, mounted on a cross-shaped frame, cast everything in a soft blue glow as it slowly moved up the Embraer's aisle. One robot can disinfect a single-aisled plane in 13 minutes, start to finish, though larger planes take longer.
Dnata executives hope plane makers will sign off on the robots – Mr Elmiger estimates they will sell for about 15,000 Swiss francs ($15,930) – as governments look for new measures to keep air travellers from becoming ill.
"We were looking for a sustainable and also environmentally friendly solution to cope with those requests," said Lukas Gyger, Dnata's chief operating officer in Switzerland.
While privately owned Helvetic has not needed bailouts like much of the industry, its business has also been affected, with much of its fleet sitting silent in hangars. UVeya's UV robots may help change that, said Mehdi Guenin, a Helvetic spokesman.
"If our passengers, if our crew know our aircraft are safe – that there are no viruses or bacteria – it could help them to fly again," Mr Guenin said.