Aviation Sanitation:

FDA Could Better Communicate with Airlines to Encourage Voluntary Construction Inspections of Aircraft Galleys and Lavatories

GAO-20-612: Published: Sep 8, 2020. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 2020.

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: The Use of Sanitization Inspections in Aircraft Galleys and Lavatories

    These days, many people are worried about air travel, and whether it is safe in the time of COVID-19. But even before the pandemic, GAO was looking at the cleanliness of airplanes and sanitation practices in galleys and bathrooms. We talk to GAO's Steve Morris about his recent review of FDA's role in inspecting sanitation in airplane-galleys and lavatories.

    View the transcript

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Steve Morris
(202) 512-3841
MorrisS@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Aircraft construction inspections check airplane sanitation systems. Specifically, they help ensure that the aircraft galley and lavatories are easy to clean, that no insects or pests are present, and that the drinking water system is installed correctly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does these free inspections at the request of aircraft manufacturers and U.S.-based commercial airlines. But, because participation is voluntary, some aircraft don't get inspected.

To increase the number of inspection requests, we recommend that the FDA inform airlines about the benefits of these voluntary construction inspections.

An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection

aircraft maintenance

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: The Use of Sanitization Inspections in Aircraft Galleys and Lavatories

    These days, many people are worried about air travel, and whether it is safe in the time of COVID-19. But even before the pandemic, GAO was looking at the cleanliness of airplanes and sanitation practices in galleys and bathrooms. We talk to GAO's Steve Morris about his recent review of FDA's role in inspecting sanitation in airplane-galleys and lavatories.

    View the transcript

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Steve Morris
(202) 512-3841
MorrisS@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Most commercial aircraft undergo voluntary inspections to ensure that galleys and lavatories are constructed and assembled to meet the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) sanitation standards, according to industry representatives. Twenty-seven percent of the inspections FDA conducted between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 found objectionable conditions. But in nearly all of these instances, the conditions identified, such as the need for additional sealant in areas where there was a gap or seam, were corrected by the airline or aircraft manufacturer during the inspection. However, some regional airline representatives told GAO that their aircraft do not receive these construction inspections, either because larger airlines with which they have contracts told them the inspections were unnecessary or because they did not believe the inspections were relevant to them. FDA provides these inspections free of charge, upon request of aircraft manufacturers or airlines, and aircraft passing inspection receive a certificate of sanitary construction. Representatives of one aircraft manufacturer said they view the certificate as beneficial because their customers see it as a guarantee that the aircraft was constructed in a way that decreases the likelihood of microbial contamination, pests, and insects. While the construction inspections are important, they are not required, and FDA does not proactively encourage airlines to request them. By developing a process for communicating directly to all U.S.-based commercial airlines, including regional airlines, to encourage them to receive construction inspections, FDA could better ensure that aircraft meet FDA sanitation standards to protect passenger health.

An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection

An Airline Representative Applying Additional Sealant in Response to an FDA Inspection

FDA faces several challenges in providing construction inspections and is taking steps to address these challenges. For example, the demand for inspections by manufacturers and airlines is unpredictable, and FDA inspectors are responsible for inspections at multiple locations. To help mitigate these challenges, officials we interviewed from four FDA field offices said they usually request advance notice from industry to allow the agency time to allocate the necessary resources for construction inspections.

Why GAO Did This Study

Voluntary construction inspections are the primary mechanism by which FDA oversees compliance with its required sanitation standards for the construction of aircraft galleys and lavatories.

A report accompanying the House 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill included a provision for GAO to review FDA's process for ensuring proper sanitation in aircraft galleys and lavatories. This report (1) examines the extent to which aircraft are inspected to ensure compliance with FDA's sanitation standards, and (2) discusses challenges FDA faces in providing aircraft inspections and how FDA is addressing such challenges.

GAO reviewed FDA guidance, interviewed FDA officials in headquarters and four selected field offices with high volumes of construction inspections, conducted site visits to meet with FDA inspectors, and interviewed representatives of selected aircraft manufacturers and airlines.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FDA develop a process for communicating directly with all U.S.-based commercial airlines to encourage them to request construction inspections. FDA generally agreed with our recommendation.

For more information, contact Steve Morris (202) 512-3841 MorrisS@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS concurs with GAO's recommendation. FDA agrees that enhancing communication with U.S.-based commercial airlines, including major national and regional commuter airlines, to encourage them to request construction inspections can have a positive impact on efforts to gain compliance with the Agency's standards for aircraft galley and lavatory sanitation and potable water system installation. FDA has a long history of working collaboratively with interstate travel conveyance stakeholders to provide public health oversight to the industry. As part of this collaboration, FDA and the airline industry connect through a variety of mechanisms to provide access to diverse industry partners. To effectively engage all relevant stakeholders, FDA will consider ways to enhance current mechanisms and coordinate with airlines on better communication. FDA will review its existing outreach channels to allow airline stakeholders to actively and directly engage with the Agency on construction inspections. FDA will review its Interstate Travel Program website to determine if updates can be made to emphasize airline construction and reconstruction information. FDA maintains open dialog with airline organizations, including the Airlines for America (A4A), the Regional Airline Association (RAA), and the International Flight Services Association (IFSA). Members of A4A are comprised of major national airlines, whereas those of RAA are comprised of regional commuter airlines and those in IFSA include airlines and airline food suppliers. These industry associations are valuable partners in developing solutions to problems that concern the airlines and airline construction. FDA will continue to engage with these organizations in written correspondence and at relevant national industry meetings (such as the Environmental Protection Agency biennial meeting on aircraft drinking water safety) and will include the topic of construction inspections. FDA will also continue to use these existing mechanisms to develop a better communication process with the airline industry on its efforts to improve industry practice and government oversight.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of FDA should establish a process for the agency to communicate directly with all U.S.-based commercial airlines, including regional airlines, to encourage them to request construction inspections to ensure compliance with the agency's standards for the sanitary construction of aircraft galleys and lavatories. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Food and Drug Administration

 

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