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Soap and water to fight COVID-19 not available on all Canadian flights

Passengers flying on some shorter routes and smaller aircraft on Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines are stuck relying only on hand sanitizer in aircraft washrooms, CBC News has found.

Passengers on some shorter routes and smaller aircraft have to rely on hand sanitizer in washrooms

The World Health Organization recommended in a 2009 report that airports and airlines around the world adopt touchless faucets, like this one, to reduce contact and enhance hygiene. Some of Air Canada's smaller planes on short-haul regional flights don't have running water at all. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Washing your hands with warm water and soap is what Canadian health officials advise is the best defence against the coronavirus, yet travellers on many domestic flights will have to chance it because there's no running water on board.

Passengers flying on shorter routes and smaller aircraft on Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines are stuck relying only on hand sanitizer in aircraft washrooms, CBC News has found.

"I kind of felt like I was riding in a porta-potty in the sky," Ken Walker of Ottawa told CBC News about his Air Canada flight Wednesday returning home from Halifax.

"The washrooms have a shelf where a sink would normally be. But instead of a sink they just have hand sanitizer," he said. "I think a sink with running water and soap would probably be effective on an airplane."

He complained to Canada's Transport Minister by tagging him on Twitter.

Airlines stress they have stepped up cleaning aboard planes amidst the current health emergency and are following advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada to provide hand sanitizer as an alternative on aircraft not equipped with running water.

But Canadian health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised that washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the most effective way to kill the coronavirus.

'Water would have been nice'

Air Canada insists all of its "mainline aircraft" have running water systems. 

But a CBC News investigation found at least one flight from China last month, amid the worsening coronavirus situation, flew despite a mechanical issue that knocked out its running water. 

Some of Air Canada's smaller planes on short-haul regional flights don't have running water either.

Heather Butt of St. John's says even hand sanitizer was scarce Wednesday on the final leg of her journey home from Tampa, Florida, via Montreal and Halifax aboard a small Air Canada plane without running water in the washroom.

"It made me feel very unsafe, stressed and nervous," Butt told CBC News. "My concern was that with this virus on the go it would be easily transmitted without proper facilities provided to travellers for cleanliness.

"I was very glad when it landed and we could get off."

Butt also voiced her concern on Twitter.

WestJet acknowledges that 47 of its Q400-series aircraft used on shorter flights have no running water, and passengers must use hand sanitizer instead.

Porter Airlines, based in Toronto, says none of its 29 aircraft (also Q400s) has running water.

"The lavatory is instead outfitted with aviation-certified hand sanitizer that meets health and safety standards established by the Public Health Agency of Canada and World Health Organization," Brad Cicero, Porter's director of communications and public affairs, wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News. "Many airlines use this protocol on certain aircraft types."

Health Canada and the CDC both say if soap and water is not available, the next best option is hand sanitizer with at least 60 per cent alcohol to be effective in killing the coronavirus — though some experts say alcohol concentration as high as 70-90 per cent is required.

The World Health Organization recommended in a 2009 report that airports and airlines around the world adopt  "automatic faucets" using "electronic eyes" to reduce contact and enhance hygiene.

While many airports have installed automatic washroom taps triggered by touchless sensors, many planes in Canada`s airline fleets operate without the technology.

'A place to avoid'

Experts all agree that hand washing is the best defence against coronavirus, but airplane washrooms present a unique challenge given they are cramped, used by many people and may not be equipped for 20-second rinsing.

University of Guelph microbiologist Keith Warriner says he avoids using airplane washrooms altogether.

"It's a very unusual environment. A lot of people closed in ... the water pressure isn't very high so you tend not to wash your hands so effectively. And they give you the smallest of towels. So there's more likelihood that you might catch something ... than actually remove."

WATCH: Proper hand washing on aircraft almost impossible, microbiologist says

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Warriner conducted a study into germs and pathogens aboard aircraft for CBC's Marketplace in 2018. He just flew back to Toronto from Orlando, Florida, on Thursday and says he didn't go to the bathroom during the three-hour flight.

"I don't tend to try to go on planes. Because when we did the Marketplace program, in actual fact, we found E. coli and all kinds of things on the latch into the bathroom and out of the bathroom.

"Certainly it's a place to avoid," he said. 

The lack of water and risk of dirty bathrooms leaves passengers and crew in an untenable position, according to the head of one airline workers' union.

"Our union's position is that running water should be available on all planes based on the fact that hand washing is paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Air Canada component.

Air Canada, WestJet and Porter say they are following the advice of public health officials and meeting all regulations and standards currently required by Transport Canada.

A Transport Canada spokesperson confirmed the federal regulator has no rules requiring airlines to provide running water in washrooms.

"Where there is no hot water, the air operator would provide sufficient antiseptic agent to employees and those persons granted access to the aircraft, such as passengers," wrote Alexandre Desjardins in an email.