Airport hygiene - preventing terminal illness

31st of May 2019
Airport hygiene - preventing terminal illness
Airport hygiene - preventing terminal illness

While air travel has revolutionised the way the world works, the ease of travel and the numbers of people doing it means airports can become significant vectors of disease and viral infection. This makes hygiene management a particular challenge as cross contamination between passengers can allow bacteria to travel across the globe in a matter of hours. Dr Colm Moore, area technical manager for Initial Washroom Hygiene, writes for ECJ.

The sheer number of passengers travelling through airports each day is staggering. In 2017, Heathrow Airport experienced its busiest year ever, with an average daily footfall of 213,668 passengers. While air travel has no doubt revolutionised the way in which the world works – helping people cross continents to do business, go on holiday or visit friends and family, all within a relatively short space of time – the ease of air travel and the numbers of people using this mode of transport also means that airports can become significant vectors of disease and viral infection.

Passengers rushing to catch a plane or in transit between flights may unknowingly pick up or pass on  microbes from their hands, clothes or luggage.  Hygiene management in airports is a particular challenge as cross contamination between passengers can potentially allow bacteria and other microbial related illnesses to travel across the globe in a matter of hours.

Ensuring exceptional levels of cleanliness and hygiene is also important to delivering a high standard of customer service, with so much choice in transport options and destination, airport facilities managers need to ensure they deliver a great first impression.

Dissemination of disease

Health and sanitation aspects of international traffic have been of concern to the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1951, when the Fourth World Health Assembly recommended that all governments should “improve sanitary and environmental conditions, especially in and around ports and airports”. The concern over the role of air travel in the international spread of disease has only grown with the exponential rise in air travel, with annual air passenger traffic more than doubling in the last 15 years alone. With customers expecting a fast and frictionless journey through the terminal, airports may find themselves faced with a trade-off between matching these expectations and protecting passenger health.

Space where the sick and the healthy can cross paths

In some areas of an airport it can be hard to avoid having a large volume of passengers sharing the same space. Security and passport control are particular high-risk zones for person-to-person disease transmission, as queues of passengers wait to be processed. Unlike toilets or lobbies which can be temporarily closed for maintenance, the smallest interruption to airport security and passport control can create huge disruption. A recent study has shown that this desire to minimise closures or disruption contributed to poorer levels of hygiene in high-traffic airport areas.

Airport germ hotspots

A study conducted by The University of Nottingham and The Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare looked into hygiene risk hotspots in airports. It found that the most notable item at airport security from a hygiene perspective is the plastic trays that are used to ferry carry-on baggage and other small items through X-ray machines.

Bacteria survives best on hard, non-porous surfaces, meaning these plastic trays provide an ideal environment for microbes to survive, and the study found they harboured traces of Rhinovirus (source of the common cold) as well as the Influenza A virus. As the scientists who conducted the study explain, “these boxes typically cycle with high frequency to subsequent passengers and are typically seized with a wide palm surface area and strong grip”, enabling microbes to easily transfer from passenger to passenger.

As part of a wider study into airport hygiene conducted at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in Finland, scientists swab-tested a series of common touch points, finding traces of harmful viruses on items such as payment keypads, divider glass at passport control and toys in the children’s play-area. Traces of airborne respiratory viruses were also found in high-density areas of the airport, with the Adeno virus appearing in one out of four of the samples taken.

The value of a disinfectant

Hand disinfectants can form a long-lasting barrier against microbes and can fight germs for hours after use. By providing passengers with hand hygiene stations in areas with high footfall – for example, at the entrance, in queuing areas, or before the X-ray machines – it could prevent pathogens from being spread from hands to security trays, without adding another layer to airport security which may cause disruption to service. Alcohol-free disinfectants are the best option, as they contain a quick and powerful germ-killing solution while being gentle on the skin.

Ideally, disinfectants should be dispensed with no touch operation to ensure the highest level of hygiene and should be strategically placed in either free-standing or wall-mounted stations so as to facilitate the flow of foot traffic. These stations should be clearly signposted, with eye-catching cautionary messages to remind passengers of the importance of hand hygiene in this area. Passengers will also speak a diverse range of languages, so well-worded and well-translated signs encouraging hygiene procedures are advisable.

In and outside the washroom

While there are many touch-points that facilities managers should monitor throughout the terminal, washroom hygiene must remain a high-priority for cleaning staff at the airport. Toilets and washroom areas should be cleaned routinely, ensuring that high use items such as soap and paper towels are regularly re-stocked.

It may seem obvious, but effective handwashing goes a long way to improving overall hygiene levels. Frequent and thorough handwashing can decrease the presence of bacteria on hands by up to 80 per cent and reduce the risk of illness by up to 50 per cent ; particularly illnesses which are easy to pass on, for example gastrointestinal infections.

The power of handwashing in the fight against the spread of infection and sickness should not be underestimated. Airport facilities managers should display and promote the following handwashing procedures for washrooms for all users to follow and help prevent the spread of bacteria and illnesses:
1. Wet your hands using clean, running water – preferably warm water – and apply soap, if possible using a no-touch dispenser to avoid washroom cross-contamination.

2. Rub soap all over your hands, covering the front and back, fingers, thumbs and nails.

3. Rinse your hands again with clean running water. The entire handwashing process should take around 20-30 seconds – that’s about the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice.

4. Dry your hands thoroughly. Damp hands spread 1,000 times more bacteria than dry hands, so the door handle of the washroom is likely to become contaminated if hand drying is missed.  

Moving towards a touch-free experience

Almost any surface that comes into contact with travellers can become a potential germ hotspot. With passenger numbers still growing, airport facilities managers have a vested interest in investing in new technologies which can help eliminate touchpoints along the passenger’s trajectory from entrance to gate. There are a number of touch-free solutions available in airport washrooms, such as motion-activated toilet flushing buttons and soap dispensers.

Outside the washroom, biometric passport gates have become a welcome addition in airports for both passengers and the airports themselves, helping to cut both the time and staff required for passport security. These also help to reduce the number of touchpoints in the terminal, as the only contact that occurs when crossing the gate is between the inside page of a passport and the reader, rather than the actual passport changing hands between passenger and attendant.

Many airports have also become reliant on self-service kiosks to speed-up check-in, baggage drop, and flight transfers. While cost-efficient, the hard surface of kiosk screens can be a breeding ground for germs so forward-looking airports are investing in a mixture of smartphone integration and facial recognition technologies for check-in, providing a zero-touch experience during the entire customer journey. These innovative solutions not only enhance and digitalise the all-important customer experience, but also help to protect the health and wellbeing of passengers.

Final words

Aiming for the highest possible hygiene standards should be an integral part of airport and aircraft operations in protecting public health. High numbers of passengers paired with numerous potential touch points present a unique challenge for hygiene, which is especially serious in the context of air travel, where local disease outbreaks can quickly elevate to epidemical levels.

However for every hygiene problem, there are innovative solutions on offer to help airport facilities managers ensure passengers enjoy a comfortable, clean and safe customer experience. Airport and facilities managers need to provide the right facilities for passengers – such as hand sanitising stations, signs promoting handwashing best practice, and zero-touch facilities.

They also need to instil the right cleaning practices such as 24/7 cleaning schedules, with special attention being paid to high frequency touchpoints, and staff well versed in their roles. With both these things in place, airport facilities managers can deliver the high standards of hygiene to the hundreds and thousands of passengers that pass through airports each day.


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