10 things airports still aren’t cleaning as well as they should

Keep it clean

For germaphobes, public spaces like airports have always been met with trepidation. Even the most sparkling of departure or arrival gates sees a lot of foot traffic from early in the morning until late at night, leaving folks to wonder what’s lurking on every surface. When you factor in the concern surrounding the spread of COVID-19, it’s more than just the longtime germ avoiders who are having airport anxiety. While airports and the businesses in them say they’re working their hardest to implement heavy-duty sanitizing efforts necessitated by the pandemic, the question remains: Just how clean are airports these days? Here’s what they’re still struggling to keep clean—and what you should do to stay safe when passing through one. Before booking your next trip, you’ll also need to know these 16 air travel rules for flying during the pandemic.

Lounge seats

A recent Inside Edition investigation of high-touch areas in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport revealed some unsettling findings. According to the news magazine’s report, producers applied invisible ink to frequently used surfaces, like bathroom handles and seating areas at departure gates, and when they returned three days later, the ink was still evident when scanned with ultraviolet light. Inside Edition notes that this suggests these areas hadn’t been properly wiped down in days, because the ink can easily be removed by swiping the area with a cleaning cloth (as they had a traveler demonstrate). The story was quick to point out that plenty of mopping and other forms of cleaning were going on at JFK; still, many surfaces were apparently being left unattended. FYI, these are the things you won’t see in airports anymore.

Moving walkways

“Airports are tricky, as janitorial and maintenance staff tend to focus on obvious areas like bathrooms, doorknobs, and floors,” says John Candelario, cofounder and president of VacationHomeHelp.com, which specializes in disinfecting and cleaning Airbnbs, hotels, and vacation rentals. “My own experience traveling often to JFK and MCO (Orlando, Florida) is that they never seem to clean the moving walkway, which harbors millions of germs, as hands frequently touch the rail. Airports are transient in nature, and combating the spread of airborne pathogens and respiratory droplets is increasingly challenging.” Candelario, an expert in the field of cleaning and sanitation, would like to see airports increase training and implement much stricter and up-to-date guidelines for proper sanitization during a pandemic. Whether you’re flying or driving to your destination, make sure to pack these 12 unexpected things for a vacation in coronavirus times.

Electronics

An airport is home to all sorts of machines and technology to help keep travelers moving through as efficiently as possible. However, these items may not be getting much attention in terms of cleaning. “Areas that tend to be overlooked are electronics, as many [people] are afraid of damaging them with any type of moisture,” says Kevin Geick, a manager at Bio Recovery, a nationwide disease and biohazard cleanup company.

To clean the nonporous surfaces of electronics properly, Yale’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety advises using a Clorox disinfectant wipe or, since those are hard to come by these days, one containing 70 percent alcohol; just make sure not to excessively wipe devices or submerge them in a cleanser. Geick notes that while his company has been contracted by several major U.S. airports for regular disinfection services due to COVID-19, many are attempting to get the job done with only their in-house cleaning staff. In addition to electronics, these are the things you should never clean with water.

Luggage conveyor belts

Unless you’ve packed light with a carry-on only, your luggage takes an adventure of its own once you check it at the ticketing counter. “Consider how many people have handled your luggage and the number of surfaces it touches getting from point A to point B,” says Kylie Loyd, owner of the travel site Catch the Drift. “Even if [luggage conveyor belts] are cleaned regularly, they aren’t after every bag has touched a surface.” You might want to consider wiping down your own bag once you make it to baggage claim, just for peace of mind. Aside from your luggage, make sure to clean these 12 things every time you return from the outside world.

Bathroom surfaces

As previously mentioned, bathrooms are a major focus for most cleaning crews, but the big things—like floors, sinks, toilets, and doorknobs—get the most attention. Loyd points to the areas that are less likely to be considered as important in the loo, like buttons on bathroom hand dryers and even touchless water dispensers (which can come in frequent contact with the back of a hand). She also points to the top of the bathroom stall doors as an overlooked place to clean. “Think about how many times you touch the top to open the door,” says Loyd. If you can get your hands on them, these are the two cleaning products proven to kill coronavirus on surfaces.

Outlets

When you’re waiting to board a flight, arguably the most coveted spot in the departure lounge is the one next to an electrical outlet. After all, everyone wants to make sure their electronics are fully charged before a flight. But personal travel blogger Torben Lonne, founder of DiveIn.com, notes that he rarely sees these areas get a good cleaning—and those protective plates over the outlets, along with everything else in that area, are constantly being touched.

“People normally charge their devices while waiting for the flight, and people sometimes rotate every few minutes,” he says. “I have seen people keeping their distance everywhere except around electrical outlets, which makes this the ideal place for spreading the virus. It is quite difficult to sanitize seats and chargers all the time, but these spots can be incredibly risky, especially if people get lost in their work and forget to be careful about touching surfaces and their face afterward.” If you must use this area, do your best to get in and get out. To that end, here’s how to charge your phone faster.

Security bins

It used to be a headache just to snag enough of those plastic bins for your personal belongings when going through security. But now we’re giving those bins the side-eye because of their high-touch factor. “The reason why it’s so hard to keep these surfaces clean is that the best environment for bacteria to thrive are hard and nonporous surfaces such as plastic and metal,” says Edgar Arroyo, president of SJD Taxi. “For plastic trays, people usually grip them tightly and microbes from their palms can get onto the tray. Some airports have implemented systems that automate the movement of trays to prevent people from having to touch trays more than necessary. Airports should [also] implement UV light that can sanitize trays regularly after each use.”

In 2017, Ohio’s Akron-Canton Airport became the first airport to use bins made of NanoTouch Materials. When nanocrystals used in this material interact with light, they break down contaminants to essentially make the bins “self-cleaning.” While these antimicrobial bins are a step in the right direction, they haven’t been adopted by all airports yet.

Passport control counters and dividers

Arroyo also points to places like passport control counters, upon which many travelers are leaning or placing documentation. “Airborne respiratory viruses can also stay on passport control counters and dividers,” he says. “While there are airports that have increased the distance between immigration staff and passengers, multiple passengers still come into contact with the same counters and dividers, and bacteria and viruses can stay on these surfaces throughout the day.” When you’re trying to work through a long line of customers to get everyone through in an acceptable amount of time, it isn’t realistic to clean the dividers between each individual customer. While we’re on the subject, this is the real reason why passports only come in four colors.

Escalator handrails

Getting around an airport, especially a large one, is no small feat. Naturally, there are people movers, escalators, and elevators to help people get to the next step in their journey more quickly. This, in turn, lends itself to more high-touch areas that customers find themselves grasping, both for safety and simply without thinking. “One area that has been overlooked at many airports, in my experience, is cleaning handrails for escalators,” says travel expert Nena Zahedi, who serves on the advisory board for Travel Enthusiast. “This is probably one of the most difficult things to keep clean since it is constantly being touched. There is really no way for those to be sanitized after every single person. If someone really feels uncomfortable, they could wear gloves or try to refrain from touching handrails.” The next time you start to walk up escalator steps, stop! Here’s why.

Food courts

Surfaces like tables, chairs, counters, and, of course, kitchens are likely getting cleaned and disinfected regularly, but there are some other items that can fall by the wayside, like vending machines and self-checkouts. Overall, though, food courts can be problematic. After all, that’s where travelers are most likely to remove their masks to eat or drink whichever items they have purchased, opening the area up to a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission. “One of the biggest problems is that janitorial staff forget things, skip around on checklists, and there isn’t a good visual way to know if something was sanitized,” says Gina Jurlando, who works with Tulu, a new platform to support cleaning and sanitization efforts for businesses. “Even if you see someone cleaning [something like] the lounge seats, you’re not usually looking at the exact product and duration of time it was applied.”

Tulu is hoping to change this. For example, if an airport you’re traveling through uses Tulu’s software and you have the Tulu app, you can scan QR codes to see proof of work, as well as detailed data such as type of cleaner and amount used. “We hope to impress upon local airports the need to show travelers that they care about their health and safety,” Jurlando says. These are the 11 best hospital-grade cleaning supplies for your home.

Safe travels

During this time of uncertainty, it’s understandable that travelers want to feel as safe and protected as possible. But know that most businesses, including airports, are trying their best. “I’ve been flying a full schedule the past few months,” says pilot Patrick Smith. “Airlines and their employees are going to great lengths to keep air travel safe and comfortable.”

While he notes that airports are never going to be 100 percent disinfected, no public facility ever will be, and Smith doesn’t think that makes them unsafe. In particular, he would like travelers to feel more comfortable when they step away from the airport and onto a plane. “The risks of contracting COVID-19 might be slightly higher on a plane than in certain other settings, but with everyone masked and the middle seats empty, they are still very low overall,” says Smith. “The air on planes has always been much cleaner than people think, and it is even cleaner now. In addition, cabins are being disinfected and deep-cleaned after every flight, including a wipe-down of all trays, armrests, lavatory surfaces, and so on.” Next, find out what you can do to avoid germs on fully booked flights.

For more on this developing situation, including how to stay safe and sane while traveling, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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