A new approach to disinfection at airports is needed as a result of Covid-19

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Over the past 25 years airports have become more crowded and the personalized experience that passengers used to receive when traveling through terminals has diminished. Increased security measures for checking passengers and baggage, which are of course essential for travel, have played a role in this.

But another safety measure has often been overlooked. As airports become more crowded, hygiene is often compromised, as management focuses on efficiency and throughput. In none of the aviation meetings, conference or seminars that I have attended over the past 20 years has safety from a healthcare point of view been a main topic. Covid-19 has, however, highlighted the need for a new approach and increased focus on hygiene and disinfection.

Hygiene and infection prevention
Ideas from facility management companies to provide better infection prevention at airports have often been ignored due to cost or the fact that it is not a priority for the customer. But with the impact of Covid-19 the industry is recognizing that hygiene is extremely important. It is important to understand, however, that cleaning and disinfection cannot always be performed at the same time. Therefore, airport operators need to ensure that they are addressing both of these things.

For the disinfection process a major problem is that there are potentially a lot of hazardous chemical disinfection liquids, which are being applied in the wrong way. Most disinfection liquids require special storage rooms, specially trained people and the use of protective clothing while handling them, and have strict rules on the right dosages for disinfection. Over time, they can also cause severe damage to structures and surfaces.

Another issue is that they can pollute both the air and water. According to waterworks companies, there has been a dramatic increase in water pollution caused by liquid disinfection substances.

Safer ways to disinfect
There are alternative methods to carry out disinfection, which are safer and less polluting. One solution is UV-C lighting. UV-C is a known disinfectant that kills viruses and bacteria. It has been used for decades and is currently widely used in food and beverage production facilities and in hospitals to fight bacteria, germs, mold and viruses. The main benefit of UV-C is that pathogens do not develop a natural resistance to it.

For airports, the latest UV-C technology can be combined with an industrial-based autonomous robot platform to provide a great tool to disinfect terminals in an environmentally friendly way, which also offers low cost of ownership. All that is required for this type of solution to be successful in an airport is an open mind by airport operators and facility management companies.

The disinfection robots can disinfect the air and all surfaces at the same time. Designed according to global health and safety compliance requirements for disinfection, they can disinfect up to heights of 220cm (87in) in 360°. These robots are already available and have been validated by medical institutions, hospitals, virologists and the European Commission.

UV-C disinfection
UV-C technology also goes beyond just disinfection. It destroys the DNA of pathogens and is environmentally friendly as it is free of emissions. It can disinfect all surfaces including textiles and has no negative effect on their quality. It is also extremely efficient compared with manual disinfection and as no poisoning particles or aerosols are emitted, it doesn’t affect the water system.

It is very important to understand, however, the correct formula for UV-C. UV lamps used on their own, for example, do not disinfect. For UV-C light to destroy the DNA of pathogens, some key parameters are required.

First, users need to consider the wavelength of the UV light. The sweet spot for a UV-C bandwidth is 254nm. Tuning the light and hitting this sweet spot is fundamental in destroying DNA. Second is energy density. This defines the energy and power applied to the target by the UV-C light during the entire lifetime of the UV tube. As a rule of thumb the minimum requirement is >85% energy density. Less than 85%, simply speaking, generates a lot of UV light, but has no guaranteed disinfecting impact. And finally, it is also important to consider the right balance of the distance and the application duration of the UV-C light.

One key advantage of using autonomous UV-C disinfection robots is that they cannot be manipulated – the disinfection process is always the same, every single time, and it is not subject to human interpretations and execution of the disinfection task itself.

UV-C buy-in
Another benefit of the disinfection robot is that users can easily monitor its work. This is especially important in the area of hygiene as companies want cleaning solutions that they can trust. All of the robot’s tasks are monitored and protocolled, and the results are documented, analyzed and reported. This provides all users and customers with the confidence that the disinfection process is being carried out properly.

This will also instill confidence in the passenger at an airport. If a passenger is confident that the airport is taking hygiene and disinfection very seriously and is not compromising on anything in the fight against Covid-19, then they are more likely to fly from that facility.

The digital solutions linked to the UV-C disinfection robots also enable airports to actively communicate with customers and passengers. They can share what has been done, which could result in increased revenues. For example, in a meeting we had recently with a large hotel group, the general manager spoke about integrating the robot’s work with its guest communication and relationship management loyalty system. The robot digitally informs guests when their room is ready and that it has been UV-C disinfected. The general manager said, “Guests feel more comfortable, as we provide them with a safe and transparent process for checking in.”

Aviation experts around the world are talking about a paradigm shift in air travel due to Covid-19. But for the airport industry to be successful in the future it has to firstly think about the main needs and requirements of the customer. The customer must feel that they are being taken care of and that they are safe, and hygiene plays a major role here. If they feel safe they are likely to return and be willing to spend more at the airport.

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