Cities Journal

How Clean is That Airplane?

The airline industry took a direct hit on 9/11, and it never really has fully recovered. Business has fallen, and for some airlines has never been the same. Profits are down, spurring money-saving cuts at all levels of the industry. One of the easiest ways for the airlines to save money is to cut down on the regular deep cleaning that they have done to their fleet. This may save the airlines millions of dollars, but can be risking the passengers’ health and peace of mind.

How Planes are Cleaned

With flights scheduled so close together, it’s almost impossible to clean planes during the day. Flight attendants do their best to pick up obvious trash in between flights, but they have other, more important duties to perform. By the end of the day a plane will have accumulated an unhealthy amount of dirt and debris. Once a plane is settled in for the night a cleaning crew will take over. They empty the overhead bins and seat back pockets, vacuum the carpets and clean the bathrooms. While this surface cleaning gets rid of the worst of the mess, it’s akin to allowing your four-year-old to clean his room. It may look tidy, but the dirt remains.

Deep Cleaning

Every airline has a process of deep cleaning that’s performed on every plane on a regular basis. Every surface of the plane’s interior is scrubbed down, the seats are taken apart and scrubbed, torn or stained fabrics are replaced, carpets are shampooed, every other surface is sanitized. While this process used to be done every few weeks, many airlines have cut down on the deep cleaning, scheduling the sessions as infrequently as 12 to 18 months apart. Some airlines are shifting back due to customer concerns and have their planes deep cleaned once a month, but the majority still do it much less frequently.

The Results

The first reaction upon seeing a dirty plane is an esthetic one. People don’t want to see empty ketchup packets in the seat or crushed candy on the floor. As with any business, it gives the impression to customers that, if the airline can’t pay attention to small details like cleanliness, what larger issues are they neglecting? The worst part isn’t bad customer impressions, however. Infrequent cleaning resulting in dirty airplane cabins can pose a serious health risk. In dozens of cases, passengers have found discarded syringes in seats and seat back pockets, in some cases resulting in passengers being stuck with the needle. Lack of sanitation means cold and flu germs being deposited onto surfaces and spreading to other passengers.

Unless you own your own private plane, there is no way you can possibly guarantee a spotless environment when you fly on a commercial airline. The first flight in the morning will obviously be cleaner, but there are exceptions to every rule. The best you can do is wipe nearby surfaces down with antiseptic wipes, avoid putting your hand into the seat back pocket, and wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get off the plane.

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