Has everyone heard about Boeing’s so-called self-cleaning lavatory prototype? Sounds great, but there’s some false advertising here. (It doesn’t actually clean itself. It sanitizes, which is totally different.) But it’s still a good idea, and the inevitable question is… why not do this on the entire airplane? The answer is “economics,” but there’s a company, Germfalcon, that’s working on the idea. I talked to them to get a better understanding of what this does.
What Boeing is proposing is a good idea. When people leave the lav, UV light turns on to kill all the bacteria in there. This doesn’t actually clean anything. (Sorry, flight attendants.) Paper towels scattered on the floor won’t magically disappear. And that drunk guy who barfed in the sink? Nope, that’s staying. But the UV light zaps all the bacteria, so at least that barf is now 99.9 percent bacteria-free.
Combine that with the no-touch fixtures and it’ll be much cleaner in that lav than it is today. It still, however, doesn’t touch anything outside the lav doors. We’ve all probably seen some obnoxious network news exposé where some dude with a blacklight shows the horrors of your tray table, your seat, and yes, the pillows and blankets that used to be on airplanes. So if you can sanitize the lav, how about sanitizing everything?
Of course, this is a lot harder to actually do. It’s one thing to build in a UV light into a small space like a lav, but you can’t really do that on an entire airplane. So that’s where Germfalcon comes in. These guys have built a crazy robot to do the work.
This thing looks like it might be on the front line in the coming robot uprising, but assuming it doesn’t turn on its masters, it’s actually pretty cool. It’s designed to go up and down the aisles, taking about 20 minutes to cover 30 rows. The idea isn’t to run it for every flight, because that’ll never happen. But running it at night when an airplane has some downtime is entirely possible.
Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. These things aren’t cheap. (Thousands of dollars per robot…) Who buys them? The airlines? The airports? And where do you store them when they aren’t saving the world from Zika? There are certainly some logistical issues.
Let’s say that can all be figured out. It seems like the world would be a better place with germ-free airplanes, so shouldn’t this happen? The economics make it a challenge. After all, people might like it, but I don’t know anyone saying “I hate Airline A because I always get the plague” or “damn Airline B for giving me Ebola.” People just don’t internalize that there’s any risk at the time of booking. They don’t make purchase decisions based on it.
For that reason, I think it’s going to be really hard for airlines to justify buying this. Same goes for Boeing’s lav, though I don’t know the cost particulars of that. If it’s cheap enough, it might be a cool gimmick to market. But then again, if you’re just marketing a germ-free lav, doesn’t that make people start wondering about the germs everywhere else on the airplane?
Maybe some airline will take the plunge and prove this thinking wrong. I’d love to see that happen. The best bet, however, is if the government decides to regulate this kind of thing. That would certainly change things. (And the government has tried to regulate far dumber things than this in the industry.)
Hopefully we see some of this in action at some point. In the meantime, just try not to think about all the germs that live free on your next flight.