Studies suggest that airplane travel facilitates the spread of viruses, making people more likely to get sick.
But a Los Angeles-based startup is offering airlines a product it says will go a long way toward solving those problems.
"If your kid is sick three days after the flight, you don't care how fast the WiFi was," Arthur Kreitenberg, the founder of Germfalcon, said during a presentation May 24 at the Aviation Festival Americas in Miami.
Airlines already use ultraviolet light to filter cabin air, and Boeing has filed a patent application for an automated UV system that would kill off germs in plane lavatories. But according to Kreitenberg, airlines aren't systematically sanitizing the entire plane. He noted a 2015 study by the website Travelmath that found that tray tables have eight times the density of bacteria as toilet flush buttons.
"Even overnight, they don't sanitize," Kreitenberg said. "It may look clean, but in reality [commercial aircraft are] filled with germs."
Germfalcon's system, which is under development, will also deploy ultraviolet technology to attack germs. Demo units are slated to be ready for rollout this summer, and the company hopes to have commercial units available by the start of the 2016-17 flu season in November.
The units, which will cost approximately $100,000, are designed to roll down the aisles of commercial aircraft. Extendable arms will reach out to clean seat areas. When operated at a pace of nine rows per minute, they'll kill 99.9% of germs, said Kreitenberg's son, Mo Kreitenberg, who is Germfalcon's CEO. At a pace of three rows per minute, the system would kill 99.99% of germs, he said.
The product won't impact the spread of Zika, since ultraviolet light doesn't kill mosquitoes. But it would take on many bacteria-related illnesses such as the flu, staph infections and E. coli.
Arthur Kreitenberg, who is an orthopedic surgeon, borrowed the Germfalcon concept from his work as a physician.
"In surgery we use ultraviolet light to kill germs," he said.
During his presentation in Miami, Kreitenberg referenced several studies that suggested the need for better airplane sanitation.
One, published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos Medicine in 2006, found a correlation between the number of people who travel around Thanksgiving, during the start of the flu season, and the speed at which the virus spreads. Of particular note was 2001, when the 9/11 attacks markedly slowed air travel. The peak of flu season that year came two weeks later than usual in the U.S., then returned to its usual peak of Feb. 17 the following two years.
Kreitenberg also referenced a 2003 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which found that female flight attendants were more than four times as likely to report five or more episodes of cold or flu over the previous year than working women in general.
In their sales pitch, the Germfalcon team asserted that airlines that adopt their technology will be able to differentiate themselves from the competition. A company survey found that 54% of respondents believed they had gotten sick in the past five years due to air travel.
But the germ cleaners faced skepticism from attendees of the aviation conference.
During a roundtable discussion, Avianca sales manager Glenn Heil-bron, Gol chief experience officer Paulo Miranda and Edmond Meehan, owner of the U.K.-based aviation consulting firm KBM Consulting Limited, questioned the demand for such a product.
"The last thing the industry wants to do is go out and generate more cost," Meehan said.
"And complexity," Miranda said. "We turn seats so fast."
Meehan later said that such a product is especially unnecessary in premium cabins, where service standards are the highest.
"Airplanes are being cleaned in first class every 20 minutes [during flights]," he said.
At least one airline representative, however, took a strong interest in Germfalcon.
"It is quite possibly the most innovative thing I've seen at the show," said Michael Rodyniuk, CEO of the small Canadian carrier Wasaya.
He said that more than 60% of Wasaya's passengers travel for health reasons. The carrier services remote Native American communities in northwest Ontario.
"I'd be all over this," Rodyniuk said.