What Will Make it Safe to Fly Again?

UV Light is a Key to Killing the Coronavirus

soren kierkegaard

“All change is preceded by crisis.”

The great Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard said, “All change is preceded by crisis.” The coronavirus has already accelerated our openness to and urgency for online healthcare, education, shopping, and even church.

As we all know by now, a crisis like this disrupts our routines and “unfreezes” us from conventional thinking. Today, we live in a new world that is uncertain and uncomfortable. But whether forced out by a crisis like the coronavirus or voluntary, creative solutions to gnarly problems usually come from outside the comfort zone.

We suspect many technological and process innovations will come from leaders in healthcare, disease control and medical science who are genuinely asking, “What should we learn from this crisis? Where are the opportunities to make the world better? And how should we change?” Unafraid to swim outside his lane, because there are no lanes anymore, one innovator in the field of medicine is transforming the passenger experience in the airline industry.

Commercial airplanes have traditionally been thought of as Petri dishes during cold and flu season. Researchers at the FAA Center of Excellence at Purdue University created the simulation below of a sneezing passenger to study the mechanics of pathogen travel in airplane cabins.

Now, some airlines are embracing a ground-breaking technology that could change our attitudes about flying in these high-touch, germy interiors.

It turns out that UVC radiation can kill all kinds of nasty pathogens, including those that reside in what seem like aluminum-encased biohazard sites—airplanes with a unique ability to carry germs around the world.

UVC light has been proven safe and highly effective in eliminating germs that cause infectious diseases, including coronavirus, influenza, Ebola, and MRSA. Health systems commonly use it for the disinfection of air, water, and surfaces.

Los Angeles-based Dimer UVC Innovations has invented the first UVC system designed to quickly disinfect an aircraft’s interior surfaces in minutes between flights. The machine, no larger than a flight attendant’s food and drink cart, is called the GermFalcon. It has retractable wings with germicidal UVC lamps that target seatbelts, seatbacks, armrests, tray tables, overhead bins, window shades, and floors.

The inventors behind this innovation are Dr. Arthur Kreitenberg and his son Elliott. Kreitenberg, an orthopedic surgeon with a background in mechanical engineering, was already familiar with UV-C sterilization, because of its use in operating rooms.

GermFalcon uses a set of mercury lamps to bathe the airline cabin, bathrooms, and galley in ultraviolet-C light. Dimer UVC claims the system can wipe out flu viruses from an entire narrow-body plane in about three minutes: one pass up the aisle, one pass down the aisle, and a minute for the bathrooms and galley.

Lessons for leaders who are driving innovation:

1. Empathy drives design. In 2014, Kreitenberg and his team interviewed 1200 people, 98 percent of whom said they were likely to fly in the next 12 months. Here’s what they found. Most passengers suspect germs from a plane have made them sick in the last five years. The majority of passengers feel airlines should be required to disinfect seating areas and would pay $5 more for the disinfection. Can you imagine what the survey results would look like today considering the coronavirus?

Dimer UVC understood the public’s pain and pressure points. The company also understood the airlines’ dilemma. That is, how do we address consumer needs without compromising operational efficiency. Empathizing with both customers long before the crisis hit, Dimer UVC designed a product that could be a game-changer. Now, the company is positioned to be a “key ingredient” in solving this global crisis.

2. A best practice in one field can become a NEXT practice in another. UVC has been trusted and relied on by hospitals for over 50 years. Kreitenberg’s motivation was to take this technology outside of the hospital into other areas where people are concerned about germs.

Given that airlines are not bound by regulations or standards for hygiene onboard, Kreitenberg saw an opportunity to offer a turnkey solution for infection prevention in air travel.

3. Creativity loves constraints. The Kreitenbergs faced some key design constraints: geometry, time, and power. They were limited by how much room the machine had to navigate the isles of an airplane without bumping into seats, armrests, restroom doors, and overhead bins.

Airlines only make money when their capital assets are in the air, so turn-times are critical. This meant the Kreitenbergs had to get equipment on and off the plane as fast as possible in between flights.

They also had to figure out the right power and position needed for the UV-lamps that sterilize the cabin of the aircraft. They did this by buying rows of airplanes seats and overhead bins from the airplane graveyard in Mojave, California. They smeared them with bacteria and then put UV meters on them to determine which parts of the plane are the most germ-ridden. As you might expect, the place loaded with nasty bacteria is on top of the seatback. Given the different types of airplane configurations, it took the father-son team many iterations to get the power and position of the lamps right.

Limitations have a way of forcing us to me more creative as long as we have a healthy disregard for the impossible and our passion for solving problems that matter is bigger than our fears. Perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is this: Are constraints excuses that undermine our ability to innovate or springboards that accelerate it?

4. Pushing past the first, most obvious solution leads to a more elegant one. Disinfecting chemicals that are toxic and not environmentally friendly require several minutes of “wet time” to be effective. If you are cleaning food-serving or prep surfaces, these chemical applications must rinsed with water. It takes approximately a minute to clean an airplane seat using traditional disinfectants. The GermFalcon can clean 54 seats in the same time.

5. Often, good enough is. Initially, the GermFalcon was designed to be a robot. But sensors needed frequent calibration, motor drives were heavy and the machine required too much energy. Consequently, robotics and automation have been abandon for now. Instead, the GermFalcon is manually operated and has a protective shield for the operator.

As of this writing, Dr. Kreitenberg has not tested the GermFalcon on the coronavirus. This is because Dimer UVC does not have a lab suitable for testing a germ this dangerous. That said, Kreitenberg expects the coronavirus to be as vulnerable to ultraviolet light as are other influenza strains.

The coronavirus might be a pandemic, but there is also an epidemic of fear that has spread broader and faster than the virus itself. The cost to us physically, emotionally and economically has already been massive. Let’s hope we can leverage this global tragedy to spawn more innovations like the GermFalcon and make the world safer for future generations.