To eliminate touchpoints in airplane restrooms, Japan’s ANA is testing out a doorknob design that passengers can operate using their elbow.

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A passenger jet from Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) takes off from Tokyo's Haneda airport on April 28, 2020
Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

One of the germiest culprits of air travel has long been in-flight bathroom stalls, but one Japanese airline is aiming to cut down on touchpoints by testing hands-free lavatory doors.

ANA airlines is gathering feedback on a prototype of a new door at its lounge at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. If successful, the design will be implemented on flights, but a spokesperson told BBC that it’s still in the “very beginning” of testing.

The “elbow doorknob,” designed with aircraft interior supplier Jamco, allows for a touchless experience for opening and closing the door. A sliding knob that can be operated by an elbow shifts from side to side to lock and unlock the door, while a protruding handle allows the user to open the folding door, also by using an elbow.

Finding the most effective design for the tight space in airplane lavatories has been a challenge. ANA also considered a foot-based model, but concerns around passengers maintaining balance, especially during turbulence, ruled out that option.

The bathroom door handles are the latest safety measure the airline is taking — it already has touchless sinks that operate by sensor on some of its planes, and as part of its ANA Care Promise, the operator has also installed vinyl curtains at check-in counters and transparent acrylic panels at airport lounges. On board, passengers are required to wear face masks or shields and the ventilation system takes in clean air from the outside to replace the entire cabin’s air in about three minutes.

But airport bathrooms are a major focus of travel cleanliness since the volume of use naturally makes them a hot spot for germ transmission. Another aircraft engineering company, the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Haeco Americas is also working on a design that opens the door by waving a hand over a touch-free sensor.

“We don’t see any reason the entire lavatory couldn’t become touchless,” Doug Rasmussen, Haeco’s president and group director, told CNBC earlier this month, adding that they are also working on automatic options for toilet lids and seats. The company has already developed a foot-driven toilet flush, an automated trash bin lid, and a sensor-driven soap and sanitizer dispenser.

Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s Collins Aerospace subsidiary is also developing a “lavatory touchless suite,” incorporating antibacterial materials, as well as working on a toilet design that eliminates the three-foot-high aerosol plume from a flush that can potentially spread coronavirus particles. Boeing has also long been working on a design that uses UV light to kill germs.

While the high-tech safeguards may offer peace of mind, the simple use of elbow grease to open bathroom doors may be the simplest to implement. The New Jersey-based restaurant chain Turning Point has had “sanitary door openers” that allow guests to open the restroom door (but not lock it) at all its locations since 2008.

Rachel Chang is travel and pop culture journalist who grew up in the California Bay Area and lives in New York City (well, Hoboken, NJ). She’s a solo travel advocate, dumpling addict, and reluctant runner — who managed to finish the NYC marathon twice. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelChang and Instagram at @RachelSChang.