Are airlines finally cleaning up their act?

The idea of commercial airlines being vessels for the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 reminds me that in today’s world of air travel, we have, for years, taken certain risks when we fly without much thought.

For example, unforeseen circumstances can cause flights to be grounded anywhere and at any time without warning, stranding us.

The idea that air travelers might be exposed to germs and diseases when they fly is also not a revelation.

Nor is the primary protective advice now being given to passengers especially new.

As a primary precaution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other public health officials, advise the public to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available and avoid touching the face.

“The most vulnerable area may well be your eyes,” Michael Zimring, former director of travel medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and author of “Healthy Travel” told USA Today back in 2014. “Medical professionals advise not going anywhere near them with your hands, as tear ducts are a fast route for germs to the nose and throat.”

Jacqui Reilly of Scotland’s Caledonian University is the lead author of a study to determine the most effective ways of reducing the bacteria count on health care workers’ hands. As she recently told The New York Times, hand hygiene remained “the single most important intervention that you can do to prevent health care-associated infection but also to protect yourself and your family from infections and viruses.”

Parents have known this to be good advice for ages. The questions to children: “Did you wash your hands? Did you use soap?” transcend generations, and for good reason.

As the Times article points out, washing with soap and water is essential for preventing the spread of germs that make us sick. In the fight against the latest coronavirus, it remains a first line of defense, with hand sanitizer as a good backup measure.

You might ask: What is it about soap that makes it so effective? As recently pointed out by the folks at Live Science, soap is basically a mixture of fat or oil, water and an alkali, or basic salt. It is a development as old as ancient Babylon, and it hasn’t changed for thousands of years.

Germs stick to the oils and grease on our hands. Soap doesn’t kill germs on our hands; it removes them. Water alone won’t get the job done. Water and oil or grease don’t mix. When you soap up and then rinse everything off, the soap carries away the germs with the water.

For the most effective hand-washing, “you must use soap and you must be thorough,” says Live Science.

Also be aware that, according to the Times report, studies have shown that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps at removing bacteria. Certain antibacterial soaps that use chemicals like triclosan might even do more harm than good.

In addition, while the alcohol in hand sanitizers kills some bacteria and viruses, they tend to not perform well on super dirty or greasy hands.

While frequent hand-washing is a first line of defense when traveling, it is not the only measure you should take.

You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to know how dirty airplanes and airport terminals can be. Airports in general — from that kiosk touch screen where you check in to those trays at security where you put your laptop, shoes and phone — are not the most sanitary of places.

Don’t stop with just frequently washing your hands. A 2017 article in Business Insider that originally appeared in Thrillist discusses what now seems like standard self-defense. If you can’t be assured that the area has been fully cleaned before your flight, bring a packet of disinfectant wipes to clean your seat (and your children’s seats).

Be sure to swipe the chair upholstery, tray table, armrests, seat belts and headrest.

Ask yourself, “How clean is the corner of the airline aisle seats that every passenger grabs on their way back to their seat after using the bathroom?” says Everett Potter of USA Today. “Or the seat headrest? It’s anyone’s guess.”

Though the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus on an airplane may be considered relatively low, these well-tested defense tactics can protect against any bug — from the flu to a common cold.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not regulate or inspect aircraft cleaning. The frequency and thoroughness are left up to the airlines. These complaints about airplane cleanliness have been going on for years. Little seems to have changed until now.

Fears over the spread of the coronavirus have led to a slump in air travel. According to Barron’s, airline stocks took a tumble Monday, “the morning after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that older adults and those with underlying health issues avoid long plane trips and crowded spaces amid the coronavirus outbreak.”

As a result, a number of airlines now are touting updated safety and cleaning precautions, along with clearly communicated cancellation policies. In one open letter by Ryan Green, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Southwest Airlines writes that the company is “expanding the use of the hospital-grade disinfectant throughout the aircraft, and it will be used in the cabin, on elements in the flight deck, and in the lavatory. This goes beyond the standard CDC guidelines.”

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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