From gate to seat, air travel is undergoing a touch-free transformation, yet the one place flyers are probably most loathe to touch — the airplane bathroom — has received little attention of late.
That's about to change, say companies that are producing "touchless tech" to transform bathrooms into hands-free zones.
In contrast to automated bathrooms in many airports, airplane bathrooms typically have no less than seven touch points per visit. From the door to the sink to the toilet itself, bodily contact is needed to operate most hardware.
While major carriers are stepping up bathroom cleaning routines — Delta Air Lines is now sanitizing lavatories with electrostatic sprayers after every flight, for example — aviation companies are creating infrared and sensor-based technology to decrease germ transmission between passengers.
Aircraft engineering company, Haeco Americas, developed a foot-powered toilet flush prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, it has added an automated wastebasket lid and a combination hand sanitizer and liquid soap dispenser to its product lineup.
The company, which is headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, is currently developing a touch-free way to open the bathroom door too.
"We don't see any reason the entire lavatory couldn't become touchless," said Doug Rasmussen, Haeco's president and group director. "We are even working on an idea for the toilet lid and seat."
An automatic toilet seat that raises and lowers on its own is part of the new "Lavatory Touchless Suite" being developed by Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies Corp that produces commercial aviation products. The range includes a touchless faucet and toilet flush in addition to a hands-free soap dispenser and waste flap.
"We're researching how we can incorporate antibacterial materials across the interior of an aircraft, including lavatories, and how we can incorporate touchless technology to ensure the highest level of cleanliness throughout the air travel experience," Troy Brunk, Collins Aerospace's president of interiors, told CNBC via email.
Collins Aerospace is also tackling the problem of the toilet itself.
An article in The New York Times struck fear in public toilet users everywhere when it warned that flushing can produce a 3-feet-tall aerosol plume that could carry Covid-19 infection risks should particles be inhaled or touched via nearby surfaces. Although lab tests show the risk of infection from toilets is less than if an infected person coughs near you, a redesigned toilet from Collins Aerospace could provide peace of mind on the issue.
Its new Agile toilet with patented "Splash Guard" technology has a mechanism inside the toilet that is designed to prevent aerosols, odor and water droplets from escaping back up through the bowl after flushing. Collins Aerospace says this makes the toilet more hygienic and reduces the risk of disease transmission.
Some new touchless tech will likely go unnoticed, even by the most seasoned of flyers.
In February, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC's Squawk Box that the airline had partnered with Vital Vio, a health tech company that makes antimicrobial LED lighting.
"While aircrafts, including bathrooms, are thoroughly scrubbed and disinfected after every flight, this antimicrobial light works in between those cleanings to continuously prevent the build-up of bacteria, mold and mildew," said Vital Vio's CEO Colleen Costello.
The antimicrobial lights have not been proven to kill the virus that causes Covid-19, though Costello notes no technology has been proven to do so safely, effectively and on a continuous basis in a public space.
Singapore Airlines is exploring cleaning trials using UV lighting (which is different from LED lighting) in airplane bathrooms, galleys and cockpits.
You may encounter a new touchless tech bathroom feature now, if you're lucky enough to get on the right test flight.
Vital Vio's germ-killing LED lights, which replace traditional lighting, are currently being tested in Delta aircraft bathrooms.
Haeco Americas' toilet foot flush is being tested in a major international airline that operates trans-oceanic flights, and hands-free door testing is scheduled to start in commercial airplanes this month. The rest of the products "either already exist or will be deliverable in the next few months," said Rasmussen.
"All of these can be installed on existing hardware and will not interfere with the original operation of the devices," he said. "So if a passenger prefers to touch the surfaces instead of using the touch-free option, that will still work."
Likewise, Collins Aerospace's Agile toilet is currently installed in select airlines around the world. The company's touchless products are in varying design, development and testing stages. As a result of the global pandemic, the company expedited its timeline to bring these products to market; passengers could see them in commercial aircraft around the second quarter of 2021.
"Aside from the sheer cost of the development and implementation, there is an immense amount of regulation and approvals needed from agencies, such as the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)," said Quigley. "While there is huge consumer demand for these technologies now, the aviation industry is not prepared to speedily implement touchless technologies at this time."
Collins Aerospace's Brunk acknowledged the industry's financial woes, but said the company is working to find a way for airlines to increase passenger safety while keeping costs down.
"We're doing everything in our power to partner with our customers to develop ready-now solutions for the aircraft cabin that can be implemented as quickly, efficiently and cost-effective as possible," he said.