Aircraft lavatories during the COVID-19 pandemic require special precautions.
For years, there have been serious questions about the water safety in lavatories in commercial aircraft. Here are airplane lavatory virus prevention secrets. Now, there is a report that a 28-year-old South Korean woman, evacuated from Italy in March, may have been infected with COVID-19 in the aircraft’s lavatory, according to researchers.
Whether or not the report ends up being accurate, there is no doubt that the potential for passengers becoming infected with COVID-19 in airplane lavatories during the pandemic is not insignificant. The lavatories pose infection risks that are significantly different and likely greater than in other areas of airplanes.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the airlines have substantially improved their aircraft cleaning and disinfection. They deep-clean their planes at least weekly. Many airlines use electrostatic spray systems to disinfect surfaces that might otherwise be missed. The airlines are also cleaning their planes between flights, including the lavatories.
Aircraft lavatories are high traffic areas on commercial aircraft.
During each flight, compared to lavatories, passengers’ seats and seat areas are rarely touched by anyone except the passenger. Aircraft lavatories are high traffic areas. They’re used by many passengers on every flight, sometimes multiple times.
On a typical long haul flight, experts tell us that the average passenger visits airplane lavatories at least 2.4 times per flight. On medium distant flights, just about everyone will use a lavatory at least once or twice. Even on short haul flights, many passengers will use the lavatory at least once. Passengers use lavatories for many purposes, which increases the number of times they’re used. They are used as changing rooms for babies and infants, a place to freshen-up and apply makeup or shave before landing when taking a “red-eye.”
With so much use, if someone on the plane is infected with COVID-19, it’s likely viable virus will be on lavatory surfaces and potentially in its air when other passengers use it.
Aircraft lavatories are so small that you’re never more than a foot from touching a surface potentially contaminated with COVID-19
Just about everyone knows the CDC recommends social distancing at six feet or more. Unfortunately, on planes, the typical distance between seats in a row, when the middle seat is unused, is just 17–22 inches. Passengers sitting across the aisle from each other are normally 15–20 inches apart. In aircraft lavatories, however, while passengers are there alone, they are also within about twelve inches from almost every lavatory surface.
Another problem in aircraft lavatories is that once there, many, if not most, passengers remove their face masks. Plus, every passenger will remove it when they wash their hands and face after using the toilet. That means that their exhaled respiratory droplets will be deposited on the surfaces inside the lavatory and if they cough, the amount of their respiratory discharge will be significantly higher.
In addition, many physicians are seriously concerned with airborne transmission of COVID-19. Physicians believe that there is “significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several meters, or room scale). That means that within the small, enclosed area of an airplane lavatory, if a passenger has COVID-19, the microdroplets they exhale — that can hang in the air for quite some time — could easily infect multiple passengers, unless they wear face masks, as each uses the lavatory.
Studies show that feces expelled from a person infected with COVID-19 can transmit the virus to uninfected people.
According to several studies, aircraft lavatories also pose a transmission risk by feces expelled into the toilet by an infected passenger. Even without GI symptoms, patients with COVID-19 can shed COVID in feces. Feces that splash on the toilet seat, or that aerosolize during flushing can put the virus in the air and surfaces of the lavatory.
How can passengers use airplane lavatories, but avoid COVID-19 infection?
Passengers in airplane lavatories must wear their face mask, avoid touching surfaces with their bare hands, use wipes instead of tap water and close the toilet lid before flushing.
• If at all possible, when in the airplane’s lavatory, passengers should wear their face mask at all times. If for some reason a passenger must remove their face mask in the lavatory, they should minimize the time it’s off.
• Passengers should never touch the toilet seat or lid with their bare hands. They should be lifted using an alcohol wipe. Before sitting on the toilet, passengers should use an alcohol wipe to thoroughly disinfect the seat and lid.
• Before using the toilet paper, passengers should unroll a foot of it, then dispose it. The rest of the roll will only be exposed to the air in the lavatory for a few seconds before it’s used.
• Passengers should close the lid on the toilet before flushing to prevent, as much as possible, an aerosolized discharge from it.
• The safety of the water in airplane lavatories has been questionable for years. In a 2019 study of airline water by Hunter College, they found that seven of the ten major U.S. airlines tested had water with unsatisfactory quality. I avoid using the tap water in the lavatory. If I want to refresh myself, I use bottled water. When finished in the lavatory I clean and disinfect my hands with an alcohol wipe or hand sanitizer. I open the door using a wipe.
Airplane lavatories are likely the least safe area from COVID-19 infection for passengers on their flights. When we travel by air, all of us need to use good sanitary procedures in the lavatory to stay as safe as possible from contracting COVID-19 while aloft.
After many years working in corporate America as a chemical engineer, executive and eventually CFO of a multinational manufacturer, Ned founded a tech consulting company and later restarted NSL Photography, his photography business. As a well known corporate, travel and wildlife photographer, Ned travels the world writing about travel and photography, as well as running photography workshops, seminars and photowalks. Visit Ned’s Photography Blog and Galleries.