Inside Information: Q&A with Dan Freeman

How technology restores confidence in air travel

December 03, 2020 in Innovation, Technology

Credit: Boeing

Dan Freeman (above) knows what goes on inside an airplane. So when COVID-19 rendered many travelers hesitant to fly, Boeing turned to this leader and 32-year veteran who’s worked on everything from cabin systems to seats, lights to stowage bins. He leads the technical team for Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative, a cross-functional effort to restore confidence in air travel. Freeman says technology will play a major role to make an airplane interior even safer than it already is.

IQ: What are the most promising technologies you’re evaluating to augment the disinfection of an airplane interior?

DF: Ultraviolet light shows the most near-term potential. It disinfects quickly and minimizes the use of liquid disinfectants on electronic components.

We are studying two wavelengths of UV light. 254-nanometer UV is the most common and is used on many current applications. We are also pursuing 222-nanometer UV, which is not as common and takes a special bulb. Boeing has a number of patents around this technology, and we are joining with a university to find out if it’s safe and if it works.

Research suggests the 222-nanometer UV light used in this Boeing prototype is more effective at killing viruses than the 254-nanometer bulbs in most other devices.

Credit: Marian Lockhart

Data collected so far suggests 222-nanometer UV is even more effective at killing viruses than 254-nanometer. We are striving to bring this 222-nanometer technology to our customers as a hand-held wand, along with solutions embedded in the cabin. Boeing is working with third parties to bring the UV wand to market.

We are also evaluating anti-microbial coatings, which are intended to remain on a surface, providing a hostile environment for viruses and bacteria, killing them over time. Thermal technology is in our sights too, using heat to disinfect, as well as air ionization, which puts a charge in the air that theoretically inactivates viruses.

IQ: Which one is furthest along?

DF: We have been analyzing UV lights for a number of years. Our team developed UV light prototypes for lavatories, and we continue to advance the concept. We have been able to leverage this work to accelerate the development of a hand-held wand. We are working to rapidly commercialize this invention to help our airline customers.

IQ: What has been the most challenging technical issue?

DF: Providing the right solutions to our airline customers that support their business and are still safe for the airplane.

The best engineering designs/solutions are those that find the perfect balance between all the constraints and requirements. This is a foundational element of systems engineering. But enter the pandemic. Passenger demand diminishes. Airlines need to react and are rapidly developing changes to operations to address both the physical threat of the virus and perceived threats that undermine passenger confidence. This is the environment in which we found ourselves: unclear requirements for disinfection, no established supply chain for chemicals, evolving regulations around the world.

“We understand the requirements, react with urgency, stay the course with technical integrity and support our customers.” -Dan Freeman

What do good engineers do? They start with the requirements. We went to the United States Environmental Protection Agency list to determine which disinfectants are effective against SARS-CoV-2 and, of those, which are compatible with our interiors.

In parallel, we began lab testing, pulling in our design teams to ensure we had the right tests in place. The pressure was intense. Our teams worked hand in hand with our customers to understand what they needed and promptly feed their replies to the technical teams. We adjusted the plan as new data came in.

The job is not over, and the team will continue to refine its approach. We understand the requirements, react with urgency, stay the course with technical integrity and support our customers.

IQ: How do potential advancements restore confidence in air travel?

DF: For people to want to travel, they need to feel safe.

Safety has both a physical and psychological element. Using chemical disinfectants, per our recommendations, absolutely enhances the safety of an airplane. And implementing additional technologies improves operational efficiency and mitigates some of the risks chemicals may introduce.

Our mantra is “data-driven solutions,” which we strive to achieve every day.

“Passengers need to know what is being done and that it works” -Dan Freeman

Physical safety is not enough, though. Passengers need to know what is being done and that it works. For example, technologies such as UV could have visual indicators in the cabin. (Think of a light outside a lavatory that blinks when it has been UV-disinfected between uses.) We are collaborating with airlines to communicate our collective efforts.

IQ: What qualities define a successful, new technology?

DF: A new technology must show improvement in some key feature without backtracking. As we look at UV, coatings, ionization, thermal disinfection or other technologies, they must be foundationally effective at killing the virus and safe for operators to use with airplane equipment and materials. There is no compromise on this.

After that, they must make the airlines more efficient. With fewer flights, our customers have been able to implement robust disinfecting procedures. As passenger travel restarts, we need to support the airline return to faster turn times and more frequent flights without compromising improved disinfection standards.

IQ: In a general sense, how has the pandemic sparked innovation?

DF: Any global crisis helps crystalize a sense of purpose. This intense focus for our technical team helps prioritize activities and accelerates progress. It also drives a heightened level of collaboration.

The pandemic significantly accelerated existing work. To be honest, prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of internal debate on whether we should invest in certain technologies and if there would be any benefit to our customers. That all changed overnight.

“People want our support, advice and leadership, and we are engaging on all fronts.” -Dan Freeman

The pandemic also lowered the barrier to collaborate externally. With the aviation industry at stake, we have swiftly connected with universities, partnered with government agencies and led engagements with major industry organizations. People want our support, advice and leadership, and we are engaging on all fronts.

IQ: Can you speak to the power of a cross-functional team?

DF: The technical team of engineers and scientists have joined forces with every function in the enterprise to develop a comprehensive plan that involves analytics and analysis, communications, our international team, each division in the company and our partners in the corporate office. We are reaching out beyond the airplane to address the travel journey as a whole.

It is only together that we can have the impact needed to restore confidence to passengers and crew worldwide. It is exciting and humbling to be a part of this initiative.