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Coronavirus: Southwest Airlines scales back cleaning measures

Southwest Airlines is scaling back on COVID-19 cleaning measures and will no longer sanitize seat belts in between flights to speed up turnaround time in between trips.

Starting August 1 Southwest stopped wiping down arm rests and seat belts as well as areas around occupied seats.

However, ‘high touch’ areas including tray tables and lavatories will be disinfected before each takeoff, the company said Monday. Deep cleanings, which take six to seven hours a plane, will continue overnight.

‘As our flight schedule evolves, we are returning to standard turnaround time,’ a Southwest Airlines memo to flight attendants obtained by CNN said.

The move to cut back on aircraft-cleaning measures was designed to speed up turnaround operations in between flights, which averaged about 47 minutes in March and is now 50 minutes.

Minimizing the time planes spend on the ground between flights is a key part of Southwest’s lower-cost business model.

The airline reduced the standard 60-minute turnaround to just 10 minutes in the 1970s, boosting profits, according to The Verge.  

In 2019 during peak travel season Southwest operated more than 4,000 flights a day. 

Southwest spokeswoman Ro Hawthorn said the crews would conduct a more thorough cleaning process at least once a day.

Each plane also undergoes a ‘deep’ electrostatic cleaning once a month, a procedure that kills viruses for 30 days.

‘Since flight schedules have increased, other areas of the aircraft will be disinfected during our overnight cleaning process, when Southwest Teams spend six to seven hours per aircraft cleaning all interior surfaces,’ Hawthorne said.

Passengers can also ask for sanitizing wipes if they want to clean other surfaces amid the pandemic.

In March Southwest, based in Dallas, announced an enhanced cleaning program that mandated ‘interior windows and shades, every seat belt buckle, passenger service units (including the touch buttons that control reading lights and vents that direct personal air), as well as seat surfaces, tray tables, [and] armrests’ were cleaned.

The airline says it will limit plane capacity through October 31 enough for middle seats to be empty during trips.

The unions says flight attendants will monitor the situation while urging the company to ensure the public ‘feel comfortable flying again.’

‘Southwest has been ahead of the industry in a lot of ways including electrostatic spraying, overnight deep cleaning and most recently requiring all passengers to wear face coverings with no exemptions,’ Thom McDaniel, a representative with the Transport Workers Union said.

‘We will monitor this change and continue to advocate for best practices at every carrier for the safest possible air travel.’

The airline also recently announced that they will test out thermal cameras at select airports to check passengers’ temperatures prior to boarding. 

Delta, American, United are also using electrostatic sprayers with differing frequency. 

Delta disinfects and cleans each aircraft after every flight.

United Airlines deploys electrostatic spraying before ‘most flights’ and each plane undergoes deep cleanings for six to seven hours every night.

American Airlines said the airline disinfects high-touch surfaces at every turnaround with a solution similar to what competitors use. 

It also uses electrostatic fogging with a disinfectant the airline claims provides seven days of protection against COVID-19, according to the New York Times.

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